It’s Mardis Gras time, and, as usual, New Orleans is getting most of the attention.
But the Mardis Gras tradition is alive and well beyond the Crescent City.
The Courir de Mardis is a traditional Mardis Gras event held in many Cajun communities of south Louisian on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Courir de Mardi Gras is Cajun French for “Fat Tuesday Run”. The rural Mardi Gras celebration is based on early begging rituals, similar to those still celebrated by mummers, wassailers, and and celebrants of Halloween. As Mardi Gras is the celebration of the final day before Lent , celebrants drink and eat heavily, and also dress in specialized costumes, ostensibly to protect their identities. Popular practices include wearing masks, capuchons, and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, drinking alcohol, begging, feasting, whipping, etc.
Each community in the area celebrates their take on the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras. Although there are many variations, most still practice the time honored tradition with Le Capitaine leading masked revelers on horseback to gather ingredients for making the communal gumbo. A few notable examples have gained attention as vital parts of the local Cajun culture. Here is a link to traditions in places such as Church Point Eunice and Mamou.
Although the tradition never died out, during the 1930s and 1940s it had begun to fade away, especially during the World War II era as many of the young men who participated were away serving in the armed forces. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the tradition began to be revived and in the 1960s got a major boost with the “Cajun renaissance”, a grass roots effort to promote the unique local food, culture, music and language of the area. In 1993 documentary film maker Pat Mire chronicled the tradition with his film Dance for a Chicken: The Cajun Mardi Gras.
The day goes something like this: People escape from ordinary life through the alcohol and the roles they portray in costume. In the early morning the riders or runners or Mardi Gras (as the troop and its individual members are known) gather in a central meeting place. As they gather, Le Capitaine (the leader of the Mardi Gras) and his co-capitaines explain the rules and traditions that must be followed. The Capitaine usually rides on horseback, wears a cape and carries a small flag. After he organizes the troop, the bands begin to play and he leads them on the route. Traditions vary in each town with the way it is carried out. Some towns have people on horse back, some on trailers and some on foot, and others use a variation of all three methods. The Capitaine is the first to approach the houses along the route, to ask permission to enter onto their property. At this point, in the spirit of frivolity, individual Mardi Gras will attempt to sneak onto the property. They are held in check by the Capitaines, who sometimes brandish a plaited buralp whip (The whips are designed to be flexible and not to inflict any serious damage onto their victims, but do produce a loud noise for the edification of onlookers). Once they are on the property, the revelers play a variety of pranks on the farmers and beg for food for the communal gumbo that lies at the end of the route. A prize ingredient is a live chicken, which is usually thrown into the air for the drunken Mardi Gras to chase through the muddy yards and fields.
Special music and costumes are highlights in an event full of tradition. More.