New Year’s Eve to Mardi Gras in St. Louis History

The French and Creoles of St. Louis filled the wintertime with celebrations! Many St. Louisans – merchants, trappers, voyageurs, involved in the fur trade – were away for months at a time and the villagers made the most of the time they were home. The weeks between New Year’s Eve and the start of Lent were marked with a round of balls, one a week, that ended with the biggest and most elaborate of all – a costume ball on Mardi Gras (first known throughout the Americas and Europe as Carnival).

After sundown on December 31, 1770 the young men of the village rendezvoused. Wearing masks and costumes, carrying sacks, baskets and buckets they went from house to house singing “La Guignolee” and “‘capering’ in the rag-dance’. Donations were in the form of goods that would be of service in an upcoming festival, such as sugar, maple sugar, coffee, lard, flour, candles, syrup, eggs, meat, poultry and ratafia.”*

After sundown tonight, December 31st, 2010, thousands of St. Louisans will descend on Grand Center in Mid-Town for First Night St. Louis 2011. Since 1991 St. Louis has taken part in a nationwide, alcohol-free, family-friendly celebration of the arts that ushers in the New Year under the banner of First Night. Begun in Boston in 1976 the festival has spread from coast to coast and twenty-six states.

For the past several years First Night St. Louis (http://www.grandcenter.org/firstnight/) has been staged in Grand Center, home to The Fabulous Fox Theater, The Black Repertory Theater of St. Louis and The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. This year’s theme, Fanta-sea, involves blue and green street lighting suggestive of an enormous outdoor aquarium.

Over one hundred and fifty artists of all kinds – musicians, acrobats, dancers, comics, bands, soloists, painters and sculptors will combine for a magical night of entertainment. First Night 2011 begins at 6:00 in the evening and ends with fireworks at midnight but there will also be fireworks at 9:00 pm for the youngest attendees who likely will not make it “until the ball drops”.

New Year’s morning in Colonial St. Louis began with Mass in the little log church after which everyone gathered for breakfast in the home of their family patriarch who gave a blessing to each. It was a time to forgive arguments, put old feuds to rest and renew one’s devotion to the family. Throughout the day neighbors called on one another and the cakes and pies which had been in preparation for weeks were enjoyed by all. Children paid visits to their godparents and recieved little gifts. January 1st ended in a New Year’s Ball.

Today in the U.S. we associate King Cake with Mardi Gras but in colonial times the first of the King Cakes was prepared for Twelfth Night. Known also as Little Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings, The Magi, to the stable in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ Child of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Among the French and Creoles it was customary for the children of the village to receive presents on this day, hence its nickname, “Little Christmas”.

King Cakes vary in recipe but one of the most common consists of a braided brioche (sweet, yeasty bread) filled with candied fruits and decorated with icing. All King Cakes hold surprises – originally beans or peas which in later times were replaced by tiny porcelain figures and later still, with plastic babies. During the King’s Ball on Twelfth Night in Saint Louis, the cake was cut and each of the ladies who found a bean in her slice was named queen of the revels.*

Each queen chose a gentleman to be her king, presenting him with a bouquet of flowers and the dancing began. Kings then took turns hosting the next round of balls, bearing the expense of each. An excellent description of these winter festivals may be found at:  http://www.nps.gov/archive/jeff/LewisClark2/Circa1804/StLouis/BlockInfo/Block59BChristmasNewYears.htm

The National Park Service at the Jefferson Expansion Memorial will give area residents an opportunity to experience this tradition first-hand on Saturday, January 8th when they host a 1771 Twelfth Night Ball Afternoon Celebration from 12:00 noon until 4:30 in the Old Courthouse downtown. The event is free and open to the public. Holiday foods will be served. There will be King Cake, music and dancing. 18th century dress is welcome but not required.

Later that evening from 6:00 pm on, a Twelfth Night Ball will be celebrated in the American Legion Hall in Prairie du Rocher, IL (about forty minutes south of St. Louis). There is a $10.00 admission fee for that event. 18th century dress is also welcome but not required. Twelfth Night has been celebrated in Prairie du Rocher since 1722.

Ste. Genevieve, MO will host its 250th annual King’s Ball on Saturday, February 5th! If you visit Old Ste. Genevieve for the festivities be sure to arrive early enough to tour the charming Maison Bolduc/Louis Bolduc House. It will be like visiting one of the many similarly-styled, vertical post houses of Colonial St. Louis; the main floor divided into two large chambers by a central wall. On one side you will find the family room (livingroom/diningroom combined) and the other will be separated into sleeping chambers –  a wonderfully open, architectural style that has all but disappeared from the Mississippi River Valley.

Une Fete du Bon Vieux Temps/A Festival of the Good Old Days/A French Colonial Mardi Gras Celebration – will be held across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Cahokia, Illinois on Saturday, March 5, 2011 from 2:00 until 5:00 pm. Music, tours of historic French Colonial buildings and activities are free and open to the public. There is a $10 fee for the Mardi Gras Ball that evening. For information you may call: 618-332-1882.**

Ordinarily Mardi Gras occurs in mid-February but since Easter is a moveable feast the actual date of Fat/Shrove Tuesday varies. This year Easter comes very late – the last Sunday in April so Mardi Gras won’t be celebrated in most of North America until March 5th thru 8th. In Quebec, Canada however the Winter Carnival that originated in Shrove Tuesday celebrations is permanently set for early to mid-February.

Sally Moehle of La Belle Histoire, 2501 S. 12th Street in Soulard, creates the most magical Mardi Gras masks in St. Louis! No two are exactly alike and many capture the style and romance of Colonial St. Louis.  I will write more about Sally Moehle, her French Quarter boutique and Mardi Gras, in March.

In the meantime I wish you a Bonne Annee, a Happy New Year, St. Louis! Whatever family traditions have been handed down to you to welcome in the New Year, I hope you will treasure and preserve them as gifts from the past to the future!

*Robert J. Moore, Jr. – nps.gov/archive/jeff/LewisClark2/Circa1804/StLouis/BlockInfo/Block59BChristmasNewYears

Photo Credits: “Mardi Gras Ball in France” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com, “Botella de Ratafia” – author: Yeza – from Wikimedia Commons, “Fireworks” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com, “Le Gateau du Rois” by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774 – in the public domain at wikipedia.com, “Adoration of the Wise Men” by Bartolome Murillo, 17th century – in the public domain at wikipedia.com, “King Cake” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com, The Old Courthouse in St. Louis, The Louis Bolduc House, Ste. Genevieve, MO, Sally Moehle, La Belle Histoire – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, the author of this blog and “Bonhomme Carnaval d’Hiver de Quebec” – author: Boreal – from Wikimedia Commons.

** My thanks to Kevin St. John for this information!

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
This entry was posted in Colonial St. Louis, History, Recollections, St. Louis and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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