Skip to content


And so the season of madness begins again. Allow me to update a little essay I wrote a few years back:

Tonight is Twelfth Night, or so I thought.

Everybody’s heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but few people (in America, at least) know that these are the twelve days after Christmas, starting on December 26th and ending with Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas, which is January 6th, today.

These days, with the commercial focus on shopping and gifts, all the build-up is beforehand; when Christmas rolls around, many people have had their fill of holiday spirit. But in merrie olde England, the twelve days after Christmas were a wild and wooly time when everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. (I hear in Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd, but I digress.)

I’d always assumed that Twelfth Night, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s famous play, was the night of the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6th. But it turns out that in ye olde England they counted kind of funny. Maybe they still do. They started with the evening before, so that the twelfth night of Christmas was actually the evening of January 5th. That’s when the crazy, upside-down season ended, and things got back to normal with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.

That may seem complicated enough, but hold on. I live in New Orleans, and here Twelfth Night is indeed observed on the evening of January 6th, and it marks the beginning, not the end, of a period of debauchery.

Yes, today is the first day of Carnival. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us.

Tonight the Phunny Phorty Phellows get the party started. The Phellows are a revival of an institution going back to 1878. There’s been quite a few changes to their routine over the years. They used to follow Rex on Mardi Gras. Now they ride a streetcar on Twelfth Night. The St. Charles streetcar was knocked out of commission by Hurricane Katrina, so they switched to the Canal Street line. Now the Uptown route is back online, but they still began (and ended) at the streetcar barn on Canal Street. That’s only a block from our house, so we took the girl to her first Carnival party ever.

The season culminates with Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — which always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent and is forty days before Easter, and as everyone knows Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Elementary.

What this means is that the beginning of Carnival is fixed, but the end floats around. This year, it falls on the 24th of February. That means the Carnival season is 49 days this year, seven weeks exactly. A good length. Not too long or too short.

I still don’t have a costume, but it’s time to start thinking about one.

Happy Carnival to all.

Update: I didn’t know, but apparently January 6th is Joan of Arc’s (apocryphal) birthday, and some folks are capitalizing on that. My co-worker RPhotos2008 has some pix. With all due respect to the Phellows, this looks pretty cool.

Published inHoly Daze


  1. […] by two seemingly unrelated things I read this week, both of them worth checking out: My friend Bart’s thoughts on Twelfth Night, and a fascinating essay in the Boston Globe about our changing relationship with hard-copy […]

  2. […] it’s that time again. As I’ve noted here before, Twelfth Night is traditionally observed on January 6th in New Orleans, but in other places […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *