Jan. 5 marks the end of one holiday season in Pensacola and the beginning of another.
The Friday after New Year's Day always signifies the start of Pensacola's vibrant Mardi Gras season, and it all starts with a festive street party taking over downtown.
Twelfth Night, also known as the “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” is the inspiration behind Pensacola’s official Mardi Gras Kick Off Celebration. However, Pensacola’s party is always scheduled for the first Friday, and thus may not fall on the actual Twelfth Night each year, but you’ll find that the locals continue to call it Twelfth Night anyway.
The Pensacola Mardi Gras Kick Off Celebration has been described as a "parade in reverse." Parked floats will line Palafox Place and Government Street starting at 5 p.m., while revelers parade among the floats that will serve as each krewe's home base for the night.
If you don't know, a Mardi Gras krewe is a social and/or service organization formed to celebrate the season. Pensacola has more than 80 known krewes of varying size and membership demographics, and anyone can start their own krewe.
During the evening, the stationary floats will be visited by a second line procession -- a traditional New Orleans-style foot parade led by a brass band and followed by casual revelers. At the head of the second line, "Town Crier" T. Bubba Bechtol presents a proclamation to each krewe, and Father Nicholas Schumm of St. Thomas More Parish blesses each krewe and their vessel with a few words and a splash of Holy Water.
The second line starts with revelry at Seville Quarter, 130 E. Government St., and proceeds west down Government then north on Palafox Place until every float and krewe has received the blessing of the season. Then the parade turns back south to end at Artel Gallery in the historic Old Escambia Courthouse at 223 Palafox Place. In front of the building, in the shadow of the 1890 Courthouse Clock, the first King Cake of the season is sliced up and distributed to the eager attendees.
King Cake is another Mardi Gras tradition. It is a sweet brioche, glazed and topped with green, gold and purple colored sugar -- the colors of the Mardi Gras season. Traditionally, somewhere in the cake, a tiny plastic baby is hidden, and its significance for the finder has different meanings, depending on whom you ask. Some say the baby brings luck and prosperity to the finder; others say the finder becomes the king or queen of the evening; and still others say the finder is responsible for purchasing the next King Cake or throwing the next Mardi Gras party.
There is no shortage of either in Pensacola, so if you find the baby, don't worry about financial duties. This party is called a "kickoff" for a reason, as it's only the start of several weeks of celebrations running through Fat Tuesday, the end of Mardi Gras season, which falls this year on Feb. 13. After the Kickoff, Pensacola will spend the next five weeks and four days awash in a sea of beads, MoonPies, parties, balls, fundraisers and parades. It's one of the best times of the year to visit the Pensacola area.
Danny Zimmern, president of Pensacola Mardi Gras Inc., which presents the Kick Off Celebration, said the evening is a great chance to start the season right.
"It's a great opportunity for everyone to get together and welcome Mardi Gras back," Zimmern said. "The krewes will be out in their costumes, and it's a great chance for everyone to socialize and see the floats up closer than you can in any parade. And we wrap it all up with the King Cake, giving everyone something sweet to start the season."
In addition to the revelry of the event itself, the downtown entertainment district will be abuzz with dozens of bars and restaurants ready to serve you, offering everything from quick-service snacks and soft drinks to fine dining and custom cocktails.
For more information on the Pensacola Mardi Gras Kick Off Celebration and other Mardi Gras events, click here.