It looks like Covid-19 has another cultural casualty this year, and I have mixed feelings about it. All across the Gulf Coast region, large and small communities are canceling their Mardi Gras festivities. It is the sensible thing to do since the crowds could end up being superspreader events for the virus.
But the economic losses over these next six weeks will be another blow to already suffering local markets. Mardi Gras is big business, but now, no out-of-town tourist trade. No parades. No useless beads and trinkets for throws off the floats. No grand balls. No secret society krewe meetings. No crowning of King, Queen, and courts. No extra dining out. No new formal wear and special visits to the hairdressers. No additional orders at the liquor stores – well, that may not be affected. But the trickle-down impact of all these factors is huge.
For some people, it’s practically a religion unto itself. However, there is a real religious connection with Catholic tradition. Carnival season, which begins on Twelfth Night, January 6th, or Epiphany (as in 12 Days of Christmas), supposedly celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. The next six weeks are filled with excesses of food, drink, and partying before the austerity and self-denial of Lent. Mardi Gras Day, also known as Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season. That would be the last chance to eat rich (fat) meats before fasting from rich foods until Easter.
Don’t tell New Orleans, but Mobile, Alabama was the first to bring this European tradition to the new world in 1703. Since Catholicism was the dominant branch of Christianity along the Coast from Florida to Texas, Carnival traditions became ingrained in the yearly cycle of social life.
My family is Protestant and not of the upper social class who participate in the machinery of Mardi Gras. I’ve never been to a ball down here or ridden on a float. When the kids were little, we used to take them to the parades for fun, but we stood with the unwashed masses, clamoring for the masked elites on the floats to throw us a few beads, candies, or Moon Pies.
I probably haven’t been to a parade in twenty years. There’s just too much unsavory stuff that happens when people open themselves up to the kind of excess and lack of restraint that the spirit of Carnival brings. So in spite of the negative economic impacts, maybe it’s a good thing that wild revelers won’t be taking to the streets this year.
But a sweet Mardi Gras tradition is King Cake – like “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Although different bakeries vary somewhat in their style and flavors, the basic King Cake is a sweet yeast bread baked into a wreath/crown shape. It’s usually topped with sparkly sugars in Mardi Gras colors of gold, purple, and green. The cake may be filled inside with cinnamon streusel, cream cheese, and/or fruit filling. It’s yummy unless it’s too dry.
The cake comes with a tiny plastic naked baby on top. They used to be baked in, but the liability of someone choking on the Baby Jesus was too great. Now, the one who purchases it can insert the little doll into the bottom of the cake themselves. As it is served at a weekly party, or the office, or church coffee fellowship time, whoever finds the baby in their slice of cake is supposed to supply the next gathering with King Cake. By the end of the season, we’re pretty tired of this pastry, but you can’t get it any other time of the year. Just make sure little children don’t have the slice with the choking hazard.
Folks are usually pretty good sports about taking their turn. But there are always those who try not to end up with Baby Jesus. They don’t want to be the ones responsible for sharing Him next week. I’ve even seen someone cheating by looking under the cake to see where the doll was hidden.
As my Auntie would say, “Now, don’t that just beat all?” They don’t want anyone to give them Jesus or don’t want to have to share Him with anybody else. That’s not how it works. We freely receive and freely give. The blessings are to be enjoyed one to another.
The Magi freely shared the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Mary and Joseph. These eastern visitors brought gifts fit for a King. I’m sure they were put to good use as Jesus’s parents made a fast exit to Egypt to live until it was safe to return home. Having some extra travel money is always helpful.
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; (Matthew 2: 1-3)
Everybody doesn’t want Jesus. He may be a threat to their position, their traditions, their power, or their lifestyle. When we accept that He is the Son of God, the King, and Lord of all, it puts us in our place. But that’s where I want to be – to take my place as one adopted into the royal family of God.
This Jesus, whose Mama called him Yeshua, didn’t stay a baby, but grew up to be our Savior and Lord, who will one day return and take His rightful place as King on this earth. So this Epiphany Cake isn’t really about the Magi, who may or may not have been kings themselves. It’s about the baby born King of the Jews, but who is King over all.
That’s not usually the conversation around King Cakes when they’re served at social gatherings during Carnival season. There probably won’t be as many parties, office gatherings, and church fellowships this year anyway. But what a great opportunity to share that part of the story, even with your own family, when someone finds a little plastic naked doll in their slice of cake.