“I’m sorry sir. You aren’t in a costume and a mask. I can’t sell you a ticket.” The lady at the table politely informs the man attempting to buy tickets for him and his three friends.
“But we drove all the way out here from New Orleans!”
“Yessir, I understand that, but we have a strict policy about keeping with our traditions. Only folks in a mask and costume are allowed to participate.”
What if we just want to watch?”
“Well, you can stay out here on the road and do that. The march is gonna start in about an hour or so. But only folks in costume are allowed to march or get in the festival.”
“This is ridiculous!” says the man in jeans and a plaid shirt.
“Well hon. Maybe this Mardi Gras just isn’t for you.”
The lady selling the tickets never loses her cool. And she’s right, this Mardi Gras is not an event for the observer. There are no passing parades with bead-tossing floats. It is fully participatory in every respect. This ain’t Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
The Cajun Mardi Gras “runs” are meant to be small, local and community-based affairs. They don’t mind having “Americains” (the Cajun-French word for non-Acadians) join in the fun, but the locals aren’t going to water down their traditions to attract a bigger crowd. As the lady at the admission table eloquently stated, this celebration isn’t for everyone. Across “Cajun Country” in South Louisiana locals show up in droves to celebrate the day before Lent. Most of these towns are heavily Catholic and a last chance to indulge in mildly-sinful pleasures is a welcome affair.
Like Gumbo, the ubiquitous staple of the Cajun table, the Courir de Mardi Gras borrows from many other traditions to create something unique to the region.
The Louisiana tradition is the American cousin of much older European festivals such as the Welsh Mari Lwyd, the English Mummer’s Play or more directly the French Beggar’s Festival. These festivals allowed the masses to ridicule the powerful. Participants dressed in costumes that garishly mimicked the high fashion of the wealthy merchant class, the nobility, the professionals (doctors, professors, judges etc.) and the clergy. The masks ensured that no individual would be subject to retaliation for their mockery. In the modern rendition of these ancient plays, the theme is the same but with less real-world class animosity and potential repercussions. The order of the day is frivolity and celebration.
Louisiana law states “No person shall use or wear in any public place of any character whatsoever, or in any open place in view thereof, a hood or mask, or anything in the nature of either, or any facial disguise of any kind or description, calculated to conceal or hide the identity of the person or to prevent his being readily recognized.” This law was put into place as a measure to curb the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan. One notable exception to this piece of code is the allowance of masking during Mardi Gras. The tall, pointy hats worn by the Mardi Gras participants may look like Klan costumes, but these “capuchons” are meant as a playful exaggeration of the headwear worn by medieval French aristocrats. By making them ridiculously tall and garishly decorated, the wearers were poking fun at modern fashion. These cone-shaped toppers are the most popular hats worn during the Courir, but other participants may choose to sport mortar boards, crowns and bishops’ miters.
To the casual observer, the event may seem chaotic, but there is a strict hierarchy and a time-tested set of rules that are adhered to or flaunted intentionally. The costumed masses are collectively and individually referred to as “Mardi Gras.” They are led by le Capitaine who wears a cape, rides unmasked on a horse and takes charge of the rowdy melee. His enforcers (les Villains) dress in black and red costumes with menacing masks. Les Villains carry whips and don’t hesitate to use them when the Mardi Gras get too rowdy or don’t follow the commands of le Capitaine. Each run has its own set of local rules. Some runs, stick to their all-male, all-adult and all-locals origins and others have become more inclusive, allowing women, children and outsiders. But all of the runs follow a similar storyline. The revelers and their leaders go from house to house and beg for the ingredients to make a gumbo. The residents receiving the crowds mete out their largess once they feel sufficiently entertained and the crowd moves along until they have enough ingredients collected to feed the masses. The costumes are garish, the crowds rowdy and everyone is empowered by the anonymity of the mask to let loose and play the fool.
Our Mardi Gras adventure started early Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the Saint Street Inn in Lafayette. Ross had rented a big, white passenger van and we had every intention of leaving town around 6:30 am. It became obvious that the prior night’s reveries were going to cause some departure delays so we just hung around the lot and drank our breakfast beers and patiently waited for everyone to arrive. Once the coolers and the people were all stowed away we left for the 45-minute drive to Faquetaique and the home of Joel Savoy, the founder and host of this run. On the way we made a single stop at the Best Stop Supermarket for boudin, cracklins and ice. Well stocked and well fed, we arrived at the home of Joel Savoy, one of the founders of this run. After an hour or so of runners arriving and greeting each other with shared drinks and shouts of “Hey Mardi Gras!” le Capitaine and his main deputy (a man named Jesse Brown, sporting a set of fringed, red long-johns and a Napoleonesque hat) called the group to assemble under the big tent in the back yard. There, we first-timers were called to the front of the stage for a “little gift” which ended up being a whipping and a dousing with beer and whiskey while we were taught the songs and the rules. Under the lash of les Villaines we were taught how to beg, sing, dance and perform drama (exaggerated simulated crying) and comedy (histrionic dancing and belly laughing). Much of the instruction was a stream-of-consciousness speech partly in French, partly in English, but all shouted in good fun and high jest.
With our clear-ish instructions, we set out on the run. At the first house, our Capitaine dismounted his horse and approached the front door. After a quick chat with the residents he raised his white flag signaling that it was ok to come into the yard. The Villains herded the group to the front porch of the modest ranch-style home with whips and shouts of “Allez, Mardi Gras!”
We all knelt and faced the homeowners, groveling low. The Capitaine shouted “Musique! Danse!” and the band who had been playing on a flatbed trailer came quickly into the yard and struck up a lively Cajun reel, inspiring the crowd to dance and sing along.
The next song was our cue to start begging in tune. The Capitaine led us – “Donnez quelque chose pour de Mardi Gras?” (Will you give something for the Mardi Gras?)
The family on the porch threw onions and rice and we scurried around the yard gathering what we could and taking it to our leader, who then majestically stood up in the saddle of his horse and held high a live chicken. The crowd erupted in cheers and he tossed the bird high into the air. It flapped its wings and glided ungracefully toward a little pond and the crowd gave chase. A minute or two later, a young man returned with the chicken and a soaking wet costume. The band loaded back onto the trailer and we left down the road to another house.
Over the course of the next ten miles, we encountered a house with a mud pit perfect for drunken wrestling, a trailer with demanding residents who required singing, dancing and theater before dispatching with the poultry and plenty of families eagerly awaiting our arrival, some joining us when we departed.
Between each house, Cajun bands played on flatbed trailers loaded with ice chests we shuffled as a scraggly line of fringe-adorned troubadours, singing, sharing the contents of our coolers and making new friends.
Midway through the run we stopped for while in large open field for a little food, refreshment and rest, but the respite was short-lived. After catching our breath and sharing a few cold, mid-morning beers, my friend and fellow chef, Jeremy Conner led meto the group gathering under the flagpole in the center of the field. An improvised, chicken wire cage sat precariously atop the pole and contained yet another prize chicken. Jeremy informed me that the pole was greased and that climbing it was folly. He and I would join the group of “sturdy folk” forming the base of a writhing human pyramid. We locked arms and pressed ourselves in tight to the pole as another wave of humanity stepped on our heads and shoulders creating a second level of bodies, about half-way up the pole. From there, younger, slimmer, stronger and more nimble climbers attempted to scale the pole and retrieve the poultry perched above. With each failed attempt a little of the grease was wiped away from the pole and at last, a young, shirtless yoga instructor made his way to the pinnacle of the drunken, unsteady heap and brought home the feathered booty. One of the guys locked in with me at the bottom of the tower marveled, “Look at that beautiful yoga-man go!”
After collecting the chicken from the “Beautiful Yoga Man” our Capitaine signaled that our time of rest was ended and the run continued for another four miles, three chickens (one of which I successfully chased down myself), cases of beer and countless songs until we returned to the home of Joel Savoy, where the whole adventure started.
The End was Just the Beginning
It took about an hour from the time the first Mardi Gras returned to the front yard festival ground of our host until the last stragglers stumbled home. Anywhere and most everywhere you looked were impromptu dance floors with a dozen or so Mardi Gras whirling and two-stepping to the live music. An inflatable hot tub was bubbling away and soothing the muscles of the over-capacity bathers. Giant pots of gumbo were ladled into bowls and the event started to take on that “we can do this all night” vibe. My friend (and Okra photographer) Denny put his arm around me and said, “It’s decision time. If we stay here much longer, we’ll probably end up here ‘til morning. How ‘ya feeling?”
A younger Tom might have grabbed another pint of local brew and stomped ungracefully onto the dance floor, but age and wisdom won out over my yearning for long-past youth and adventure. We gathered the troops and headed back to Lafayette. On the way home fellow Mardi Gras Ross Fontenot could not have said it any better, “What a Mardi Gras! I’m gonna be sore on the back from the whipping, sore on my feet from the dancing and sore in my head from everything else.”
I’m pretty sure this won’t be my last trip of pre-Lenten joy with group.
Written by Tom Ramsey / Photography by Denny Culbert
Sometimes a song can explain it all. The one tune you will hear over and over during the Courir de Mardi Gras is Le Danse de Mardi Gras. There are several versions of this tune and they’re all “correct.” This is one of the more popular examples.
Le Danse de Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras s’en vient de tout partout,
Tout alentour le tour du moyeu,
Ça passe une fois par an, demandé la charité,
Quand-même ça c’est une patate, une patate ou des gratons
Les Mardi Gras sont dessus un grand voyage,
Tout alentour le tour du moyeu,
Ça passe une fois par an, demandé la charité,
Quand-même ça c’est un poule maigre, ou trois ou quatre coton maïs.
Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag,
Allons chez un autre voisin,
Demandé la charité pour les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Ouais, au gombo ce soir!
The Dance of the Mardi Gras
The Mardi Gras come from all around, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a potato, a potato or pork rinds.
The Mardi Gras are on a great journey, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.
Captain, captain, wave your flag, let’s go to another neighbor’s.
Asking for charity for everyone who’ll come join us later,
Everyone who’ll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!