A Different Kind of Mardi Gras

When I relocated to south Louisiana at the adventurous age of 23, the celebration of Mardi (Tuesday) Gras (fat) had not yet made its way to the streets of Bossier City or Shreveport, my old stomping grounds. And because my family wasn’t Catholic, I was pretty clueless about Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and Lent.  

Courir de Mardi GrasNot long after I moved to Thibodaux, the first Mardi Gras season rolled around, and I was initiated into the revelry at parades like Rex, Bacchus, and Endymion in downtown New Orleans. Not having grown up with the tradition, it was beyond me why anyone would risk getting their fingers stomped on for some plastic beads and metal doubloons.  It was, though, very easy to get caught up in the headiness of the quick-stepping music, extravagant floats, and shimmering costumes.

Courir de Mardi GrasEventually, I sampled parades in Houma, Metairie, and Luling.  Athough those parades were more family oriented and not quite as grand, they still offered just as much in the way of music, floats, and throws. Somehow, I just felt safer there than down on Canal Street and the French Quarter. Eventually, for various reasons, I stopped going to parades altogether.

However, several years ago, I heard about a type of Mardi Gras celebration that doesn’t include big floats and bright lights.  In south-central and southwestern Louisiana, called “Cajun Country”, they celebrate Mardi Gras a little differently.  Their celebrations don’t have their roots in the Roman celebration of Carnival, but rather in the roots of Medieval France and what was known as the “Feast of Begging”.  

This feast occurred at the end of winter when poor folks were running short on food.  History tells us that these laborers wore masks and went from house to house of the wealthy dancing and singing for gifts of food.  In the 17th century, these traditions traveled with those French farmers as they immigrated to Acadia, on the coast of Canada.  Eventually, the French immigrants, now known as Acadians, were cast out and headed south by boat, down the eastern seaboard, looking for a new home.  Many of the original 11,500 Acadians ended up on the coast of Louisiana.

These refugees are now known as Cajuns, and many of them still hold to the traditions brought over from their French homelands in the early 1600s.  Today, the “Feast of Begging” is known as “Courir de Mardi Gras”  and is the way many rural Cajuns celebrate Fat Tuesday.  Translated in English, this celebration is known as the “Mardi Gras Run”.

Towns like EuniceChurch Point, and Mamou still hold a Courir de Mardi Gras, but you won’t see any lavish floats rolling down Main Street.  Instead, you will see local folks dressed up in brightly colored costumes, their faces often covered by masks, riding on horseback, in buggies, on flatbed trailers, and they’re all after the same thing:  ingredients for a grand gumbo to be cooked later that evening for the entire community.

A respected man from the community is chosen as “The Capitaine”.  He becomes the leader of the runners, who are known as the Mardi Gras. As the Mardi Gras ride into the countryside, the Capitaine approaches each farmyard first, asking permission from the landowner for the revelers to enter the property and obtain whatever the farmer wants to contribute to the gumbo. Often, it’s a live chicken, which is released, and when The Capitaine waves his white flag, the chicken chase is on!

Courir de Mardi Gras

Photo courtesy of Out Da Bayou TV

After all the ingredients are gathered for the gumbo, the Mardi Gras head to the heart of the community, where the gumbo will be prepared.  The revelers will eat, drink, dance and be merry until midnight, which is when the gaiety ends and the somber season of Lent begins.  

Even though it’s been on my list for a while, I’ve never attended a Courir de Mardi Gras.  It was my hope to attend one this year, but family obligations dictate otherwise.  

Maybe next year I can bring you an exciting, first-hand account of my experience at the Courir de Mardi Gras. Or, maybe some of you have attended a version of the Cajun Mardi Gras Run. How about you share those stories with us now?

Until then, this video clip from a 1972 film by J.P. Bruneau might give you a better idea of the tradition.  

How about another contest?  All comment authors will be entered into random drawing for a ziploc bag full of Mardi Gras beads and doubloons!  If you are from La. and don’t want to win, just let me know in your comment and I won’t add your name to the hat.  

Happy Fat Tuesday, y’all!

BW

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Comments

A Different Kind of Mardi Gras — 31 Comments

  1. definately makes more sense to this dumb yankee. Up here most churches and fire dept. etc have pancake breakfast scheduled up till Ash Wednesday and that is about all that happens.

    • Blu – did you see my question on last thread? If you visit PJ’s coffee website and see a different type of coffee you would like, would you please let me know asap? I’m going to buy it at the local PJ’s if they have it and ship it to you myself! You might not like King Cake flavored coffee, which is probably cinnamon-ee! Let me know, please sir!

      • Hey I just report what I observe . not a religious historian. Yes we have Catholics and everything else. No mosques or temples yet.

  2. EVERY Mardi Gras Day when we turn on the evening news we can count on seeing a piece on Mamou. I didn’t realize Churchpoint and Eunice also celebrated this way. I wouldn’t mind having some of the gumbo they make with the chickens they are given. Thank you, but I don’t need anymore beads or doubloons.
    Doesn’t PJ’s offer gift certificates? That might be an option for Blu.

    • We didn’t hear about these celebrations for a long time, though, Steffi. They’re now gaining more attention. My problem is I want to be right in the middle of everything, and most of the runs don’t allow women. One town does have one especially for women, so maybe I can schedule to go to that one next year. I’m sure they have gift certs, but their shipping rates are outrageous!!! he wouldn’t get much for his money. Does Baton Rouge have big parades?

      • I think Baton Rouge has at least 4 parades. Well, 5 if you count The Krewe of Mutts. That one is literally for the dogs. Dogs are dressed in costume then they follow a parade route leashed. I think only 2 of the Krewes make the “Society” pages.

  3. I have always wanted to go to Mardi Gras but from what I have seen on TV, I doubt I will ever go. Looks like madness to me.

    I would enjoy the Courir de Mardi Gras though. It sounds like it would be a lot of fun and I do love good gumbo.

    • It is madness, Cammy, but there are family oriented parades where there are alcohol free and smoke free zones for watching. There are SO MANY parades you just wouldn’t believe it. There are probably a dozen Krewes in Houma, alone. Can’t imagine how many there are in New Orleans. The floats are really magnificent, creative, and downright genius. I guess you know that at the beginning of the carnival season, the Mayor of New Orleans gives the key to the city to Rex, and then they proclaim that there are no laws during the time of celebration? I guess that’s why some low class citizens take that literally and do some really bad things during Mardi Gras. Sort of takes the fun right out of it.

  4. I LOVE THIS STORY AND THE ONLY TIME I HAVE BEEN TO MARDI GRAS WAS ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND WE WERE NOT CLOSE TO THE FRENCH QUARTER. IN DAYLIGHT IT WAS REALLY COLORFUL. I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED T
    O GO TO EUNICE TO JUST HEAR CAJUN MUSIC AND WATCH THEM DANCE. I SAW SOME PEOPLE ON BOURBON STREET YEARS AGO AND THEY LOOKED AS THOUGH THEY WERE HAVING A GREAT TIME.

    • Lots of folks from here take their families to Disney in Orlando over the Mardi Gras break, because our kids get the entire week off! My family did just that two years ago (but I stayed home!!! Disney is not my idea of a break from anything, LOL!!! The down side of Mardi Gras is all the trash that it generates. It’s almost like a license to litter, sadly.

      • 8 of my family members are stuck on I-12 right now trying to make their way to Disney. We gladly stayed here to take care of their dogs.
        Did you know New Orleans actually measures its Mardi Gras success by the number of TONS of trash that is collected.

  5. In college the fraternity, we’d always rent a 2 ton U-Haul and park it close to Lee Circle, it had ice chests, water, soda, towels, emergency clothes, with a strung up blue tarp we had 2- 5 gal buckets with plastic trash bags I am sure you can figure that out. If not the toilet paper was next to them.

    In the past, Sunday (even thought it was the Bacchus krewe’s day), was always considered Family day. Even in NO the crowds were more family oriented although not much that was in the 60’s. Usually all the professional partiers took that day off and went to spend the day at home with family at the local Mardi Gras’s. We always ended up in Thibodaux. It was a good safe parade, we rented rooms at the Holiday Inn, loads of the locals were folks I knew from college so the good beads were in mass quantizes. And the (little at the time), niece and nephew could run wild without worry. Those were the days, right?

    Usually I’d come in on Friday, Party Friday and Saturday in NO, Sunday Thibodaux, Monday it was back to NO, Tuesday NO, Wednesday it was sleep all day and night, Thursday and Friday with the folks, Fly out either Saturday or Sunday.

    I never put it together about the pancakes till last weekend when brother-in-law enlightened me (He’s from Washington State) that Mardi Gras/shrove Tuesday is also international pancake day. That’s all they ever did was go out an get pancakes.

    BTW I am sure its just me not being observant before, but this year I seemed to notice a lot more krewes pictures in the society sections in the paper. Its like Baton Rouge has decided to join the festivities.

    The Courir de Mardi Gras is something people are trying to bring back. It was basically a southwest Louisiana tradition. I liked it a lot better. There is just as much drinking and raising cane, its just done in the field or on a sober horse….LOL And home made costumes are required!

    And Happy Mardi Gras! Get ready for lent and seafood!

    • See pancakes before lent…. Thank you, foamie.

      Blu is trying to figure out meat smoking and cheese and nuts and stuff and such.

      Blu is also getting a cajon kit because I don’t want to work just bang on a drum all day……

  6. This was just posted on Facebook on the Mamou Courir de Mardi Gras page. Thought y’all might find it interesting:
    “A few rules for the ride.
    Men at least 18 years old can ride unaccompanied as long as they are in costume. 17 year olds may run if accompanied by a parent.
    Cost to ride is $30
    Costume must have a traditional mask and hat. NO BASEBALL CAPS COWBOY HATS BEADS OR POCKET KNIVES.”

  7. I had planned to get to Church Point – or somewhere – this year, and somehow time got away from me. First it was New Year’s Day, and now? We’re almost to Ash Wednesday. Good grief.

    I first heard about the Courir de Mardi Gras at Whiskey River in Hendersonville. The Pine Leaf Boys were playing, and one of their songs was “La Danse de Mardi Gras”. I was asking some questions, and ended up hearing tales of horses and chickens and gumbos – all more interesting than a bunch of drunks on Bourbon Street. 😉

    I found a wonderful video with old pics from Mamou, and some of the music by Nathan Abshire and the Balfa Brothers. You can’t get better than that!

    As for Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) that was the big tradition of my childhood. Pancakes were a traditional way to use up all the fat in the house before Lent began – butter, lard and so on. And “Shrove” is the past tense of the word “shrive”, which means to make confession and receive absolution for sins. Some of my older Catholic friends have said that Shrove Tuesday was a day to go to confession, in order to be ready to begin Lent.

    I know one thing – I’ll take gumbo over pancakes any day!

  8. It’s been fun reading about how Mardi Gras is celebrated in LA and the history of the various ways of celebrating.

    I remember hearing about folks going to NO for Mardi Gras but it was not something you’d find here. At least, back in the 60’s. Going to NO for Mardi Gras for anyone here, back then, was akin to going to a vacation destination, to see something you didn’t see at home. I’ve heard people my age say it was better back then and that they’d never consider going now. Most folks my age are waaaaay past dealing with all the crowds and drinking.

    In the past decade or so, people here have started to hold Mardi Gras parties at home. Bars, of course, jump for any excuse to entice customers and I hear that things can sometimes get a bit rowdy downtown nowadays. We are a college town and the young’uns also look for any excuse to whoop it up.

    I wish I’d had the opportunity to go to NO for Mardi Gras before it got so big.

    • Come on Gue, you must remember be back in the early 70’s doing Mardi Gras in Charleston? Spreading happiness to all the good little girls. Got all dressed up in my parade mask & beads and headed out to the clubs! It was fun till the first altercation over a guy wearing beads…..LOL ya know I had that same problem with the cowboys in West Texas too! I wonder if the cowboys out there originally migrated from SC?

      I always spread the Mardi Gras good cheer where ever I was. They should have made me a good will “Mardi Gras” ambassador!

  9. According to the News reports, it looks like all the parades rolled today despite the horrible weather. As for me, I sat in front of a roaring fire and got caught up on some telephone calls. The high here was 37. I checked the temperature every time I had to go out for firewood. Low temps, wind, and rain/ice are NOT me.
    The only time I heard that old familiar…”Throw me something, Mister”, was when I watched the news. The crowds were really down this year. I really don’t blame the public for not attending, but I feel bad for the Krewes who have worked a year preparing for this day. AND…the out of pocket expenses.

  10. I actually got up and made home made beignets (I did, I did!). Sat down with a cup of Coffee with some beignets got on the ‘puter. I checked the weather, its an automatic action ever day. Its says rain and cold. I realize I hadn’t gone outside, so I walk out the back door and jump back in! It was raining and about 39 degrees and I didn’t have a clue. LOL I came back and took off my shorts and put on my big boy pants.

    I lub this new furnace! I hope the A/C works as good!

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