Cascarones. Washington Post photo by Julia Ewan

Yesterday was the official kick off of Fiesta in San Antonio. As darkness fell, fireworks boomed in the sky and reflected in my windows lighting up the downtown sky with color. The 11 day celebration began in 1891 to honor the heroes of the Alamo and Battle of San Jacinto. Since,  it has grown into the famous annual citywide celebration embracing a variety of events and traditions.

Battle of the flowers, 1891

On this first night, I went to my first fiesta event and took in the colorful flags, tablecloths, flower decorations, headpieces and the viewed the importance of much fought over bins filled with cascarones or “confetti eggs”. Many people had confetti adorning their hair and underfoot was a blanket covered with pieces of colorful egg shells and confetti shaken free from people’s hair.  A central fiesta ritual, breaking cascarones over friends head is reported to bring good luck and symbolize friendship.

I hear the crack and feel the tap on my head as my friend adds confetti to my hair as well and I couldn’t help but wonder how this tradition began. After some investigation, it turns out–as with some traditions–its origin is not as straightforward and the truth is uncertain.

Princess Charlotte of Belgium, or better known as Empress Carlota of Mexico (1840-1927)

One possibility alludes to the Empress Carlota, claiming that she brought cascarones to Mexico when her husband, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, became the nominal emperor of Mexico. The story continues to explain that she would have been exposed to them in Italy through Marco Polo who brought them from his travels in Asia.

I couldn’t help wondering if the important–long dead and unseen character– Carlotta Valdes in the film Vertigo might have been inspired by the Empress Carlota. She shares her name and general time period and, if nothing else, a portrait in the film seems to be modeled after the empress’ portrait in composition, including the column and landscape in the background. It is hard to find a cohesive background story for the fictional Carlotta, but the fact that she took her own life was an important plot point in the story and rendered the character as a central figure–even though in the film she is represented by a portrait, grave stone and a pendant.

The fictional Carlotta Valdes (1831-1857) from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958

The name ‘Carlotta’ means strong in Italian, a female version of the name Charles. The third Carlotta shares her name–the Villa Carlotta–and overlooks lake Como. She is filled with art and surrounded by flowers. The Villa was sold in 1843 to Princess Marianne of Nassau–the wife of Albert of Prussia–who named it after and gave it as a present to her daughter Carlotta.

Villa Carlotta

Looking to Lake Como from Villa Carlotta

Die Villa Carlotta am Comer See by Carl Hummel (1855)

The story about  Empress Carlotta popularizing the cascarones is likely a rumor according to wikipedia. They also propose that Marco Polo’s involvement is rumor as well. It is believed that he would have encountered a similar perfumed egg while in Asia. However, in Asia the eggs were filled with perfumed powder instead of confetti and were given as gifts. Often, gentleman gave them to ladies they found attractive. Due to the price of perfume in Mexico, the eggs were said to have been filled with confetti instead.

Another story of the history of Cascarones

“Cascaron”, simply meaning “eggshell”,  is derived from the Spanish word “cascara”. Different histories regarding the tradition have spread around San Antonio but it seems to be agreed upon that cascarones came from Italy and spread to Mexico where they took on a new life. Regardless of the true origin of these eggs, they have a treasured position in San Antonio’s Fiesta.

I found this advice in several places–make a wish and bump the egg gently in your hand before you spill the contents on someones head. If you do so, your wish will come true. I go forth into the days of Fiesta ahead, cascarones in hand, ready to be bumped and hoping to unleash good fortune with wishes fulfilled.