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.
Not 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.
Eventually, 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 Eunice, Church 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!
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!