It begins on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the day the kings arrived with their gifts for the Christ child. Now centuries later, it’s the day the king cakes arrive and the Mardi Gras season begins. We cook it all into a season-long party down here in south Louisiana, where our religion, politics and culture simmer together in a big bubbling gumbo pot.
AAAahhhhh, king cake, that coffee-cake-like, oval shaped confection, sprinkled with the season’s colors of purple, green and
gold. There’s a small plastic baby buried in a slice—to represent the baby Jesus, of course. The recipients of this gift know they must bring the next king cake to the next gathering.
It is a season of indulgence during the cold, wet, dark days of winter. It ends on midnight Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, and Lent begins. Lent, the season of sacrifice to remind us all of Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. Most people sacrifice sweets or alcohol for those 40 days, which just counter balances the indulgences of Mardi Gras.
The King’s Whiskey and the Queen’s Tea is a small local event connected to a small neighborhood parade that began 28 years ago. My wine-drinking friend, Queen T was this past year’s Queen. I joined her and the Southdown’s Krewe to celebrate the passing of the crown to a new Queen and King. (Here’s last year’s post about her coronation).
The event is held at the lovely, gracious home of the parade’s founder. No one thinks it odd that our host, a doctor, has a feathered hat on and is brandishing a sword while he makes pronouncements. The first announcement is that it is time for the men to go outside to build the bonfire. Inside the Krewe of Southdowns past Queens share poetic words of advice to the new Queen, all followed by a toast. This is the Queen’s Tea.
After the passing of the crown from last year’s Queen to the new, we join the men at the King’s Whiskey. Outside there is a large wooden throne overlooking a metal “chimney” into which dried and brittle Christmas trees are thrown to create a spectacular bonfire. There are about 60 trees that are burned one by one. That number has reached 200 in past years and the party has lasted until dawn.
There is generally a pronouncement as each tree is put into the fire and a bagpiper plays. While the sound of the bagpipe is mournful, the tunes he plays are not. We hear the theme from the old TV show, Bonanza, and “The Saints go Marching In,” to which many in the crowd sing to. Later drummers add their rhythmic beat to the night.
I was stuck by how ancient and primal the evening felt. Amongst the fun and frivolity, the courtly traditions harken back to a centuries-old European tradition of royalty. At the Queen’s Tea the words are spoken in a courtly fashion. The reign of past Queens are honored, as the new Queen becomes part of the lineage.
It was easy to imagine ancient bonfires that lit up the winter nights. We’ve always needed warmth, light and friendship to help us through dark times. The sound of the bagpipes, and the drums, and the explosion of heat that each tree created as it exploded into flames, gave a timeless feel to the night. It made me feel connected to long-gone souls who had the same kind of gathering. People have always gathered for the warmth of community on cold winter nights.
Cheers to the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and to the Krewe of Southdowns. And may I not eat too many slices of king cake!
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