Mardi Gras: South West Louisiana-Style – Louisiana, USA

Mardi Gras: South West Louisiana-Style
Louisiana, USA

Throwing Beads
Throwing Beads
If I hadn’t been to a talk on Cajun traditions the night before, I would have been pretty shocked at some of the things that I saw and experienced at the Elton County Chicken Run in Southwest Louisiana. The Cajuns are an ethnic group whose culture has been greatly influenced by French Canadian refugees who settled in SW Louisiana during the 18th century. This Mardi Gras is nothing like that of New Orleans – there are no beads flung or “college girls gone wild “. The Courir (run) de Mardi Gras is a tradition that goes back several centuries and still flourishes. This rural celebration of Mardi Gras starts in the early morning hours. Arrangements had been made for a group of us to ride along with the musicians who belted out tunes to bolster the spirits of the group of participants Mardi Gras as they are called, with the “s” spoken at the end of the word.

A bleary eyed bunch – we pulled up at around 6:30 a.m. to find a lively bunch of guys all dressed in homemade costumes in bright colours of green, gold, red, and purple. These are the traditional Mardi Gras colours, purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Many of the outfits looked like frayed clown suits or the squares of cloth that are used to make rag dolls. Pointy cone shaped hats, known as capuchons, were everywhere and many participants hung home-made wire masks on the side of them, although a few people had store bought masks in the likes of political figures such as George Bush or Richard Nixon.

We had spent the night before trying on the wild-looking homemade hats and making our own masks so we were not completely unprepared for the spectacle ahead. Most people were already drinking from beer cans or wine bottles. This is an event for men but a bevy of women were in attendance to make sure that the men did not lack from food or drink.

Costumed Marti Gras
Costumed Marti Gras
People were greeting each other with shouts of glee and pats on the back – milling around and getting ready for the big convoy that was going to stop at the homes of people who had been pre-cleared as being willing to participate in the event. To sum it up briefly – the goal of the run is for the “Mardi Gras” to collect the ingredients necessary to make a gumbo – a thick, spicy soup – from their rural neighbours. The most prized ingredient is a live chicken. Other homes might offer things like a bag of rice or some smoked sausage. The unique thing is how they go about asking for this stuff. We learned the night before that there were three ways of getting a food donation, dancing for your supper, begging or playing the fool.

We were riding on a truck bed that had some old seats stuck on for comfort. There were a bunch of musicians up front who played instruments such as a fiddle and guitar. They sang a song in French that had a plaintive but melodic sound. It goes back to the days when the people had a hard time making it through the winter and thus needed to come together in order to make sure that everyone was fed. It has evolved into a communal celebration of the present and the past.

Many of the men are on horseback, some are walking and some are riding together on trucks as we are. Now that it is time to get serious – people are pulling down their masks so it is really difficult to tell who is who anymore. As the music plays some of the costumed Mardi Gras begin to dance by themselves and with each other. It isn’t till we pull up to the first property that things get really wild. Some of the participants have been designated capitains and the walk around with braided whips made out of burlap sacks, trying to keep order. The Mardi Gras begin to do all kinds of variations of begging and mischief making. They crawl on the ground and grab at people’s feet, they go through the pockets of bystanders, and they even take the shoe off of the woman next to me and run off with it. They also chase each other around, whoop loudly, climb trees and wrestle in the mud. An elderly man identifies himself as the owner of the house and demands that they do some relay races in order to earn the live chicken that is in the pen beside him. Eventually when he is satisfied he throws it in the air and a mad chase ensues. The chicken is finally caught and we all pile into our convoy again and drive off down the road.

Meanwhile on board the drinking is continuing. We have a police escort in the interest of safety and the road is deserted. One of the musicians starts to pass around some weird looking alcoholic concoctions. I start to feel uncomfortable because I don’t drink – this is not my tradition and yet the musician/mardi gras is insisting that I take a drink or the vile smelling stuff will be poured over my head. Obviously he is enjoying playing the fool. Eventually my friend steps in a takes a swig to save me.

The morning continues and I find myself alternating between thoroughly enjoying the spectacle and feeling like a confused outsider.

For the next three days I am treated to Mardi Gras events all over the area. I have the opportunity to both catch and throw beads, to eat King Cake and find a ‘baby’ inside, and to attend a parade of glamorously costumed people at the Mardi Gras Royal Gala.

Somehow Mardi Gras and all the religious and cultural traditions that have evolved around it has become the heart of the Louisiana way of life. It brings communities together, gives them projects to work on and events to look forward to. It adds life, light and sparkle to the more drab times of the year. How many communities have events that all segments of the population take part in? No wonder outsiders from all over the world are drawn to make the trek to Louisiana during Mardi gras.

Contact Information
Jeff Davis Parish Tourist Commission
1-800 264-5521

Southwest Louisiana/Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau
1205 N. Lakeshore Drive
Lake Charles