On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
Phunny Phorty Phellows? Huh?
Every visitor to New Orleans has heard of our world-famous Mardi Gras celebration. But did you know that Mardi Gras is the last hurrah in a six-week-long Carnival season, when costumed parade krewes (that’s New Orleanean for crews, but more on that later) descend on the city to march, make merry, and masquerade ‘til they drop?
The fun begins twelve days after Christmas on January 6th, which marks the Feast of the Epiphany. Christians believe that’s the day when the three wise men brought rare gifts to the infant Jesus, and they have long celebrated the occasion with lavish feasts and fancy balls. As the holiday spread, it got mixed up with ancient pagan holidays like Saturnalia, which featured masked skits parodying current events and public figures. Blend it all together, let it rest for a few centuries, and ta-da! You get Carnival.
Carnival is a European tradition, but it’s been part of the Big Easy since the city’s founding. The French explorers who first settled our city actually landed in present-day New Orleans on Mardi Gras. And while plastic beads and frozen drinks were probably hard to come by in the Louisiana swamps, you’d better believe that they whipped up the best feast that they could forage and partied like it was 1699.
It took the colonists a few years to get settled, but by 1705, Carnival was in full swing. The first Feast of the Epiphany parade was organized by a krewe called the Cowbellion de Rakin, so named because they rang cowbells, staged a mock rebellion against decency, waved rakes, and liked making fun of French-sounding words. Other parading krewes like the Mystick Krewe of Comus and the Phunny Phorty Phellows soon joined the fun, and Carnival season has been growing in popularity ever since.
I know what you’re thinking. What’s up with these, uh, inventive spellings? They’re what linguists call “stunt words”: deliberately silly or surprising terms that are meant to draw attention. So if the Phunny Phorty Phellows, krewes, or mystick societies made you do a double take and wonder what Carnival in New Orleans is all about, then they did their job!
Written by Chris, a local expert guide for New Orleans Crawling. A historian on the lam from the world of academia, Chris enjoys gardening, hiking, and playing at open mic nights after one too many beers. Want to learn more about New Orleans’ hidden history? Join us on an Irish Channel Pub Crawl!