Courir de Mardi Gras
This is Mardi Gras Cajun style. It’s a scene enacted all over Acadia, but this year we decided to attend the Courir de Mardi Gras in the little town of Eunice, about 150 miles west of New Orleans.
The Cajuns, as everyone knows, are descendents of peasants from the west of France who originally settled “Acadia” in Canada in the 17th century. When the British conquered their part of Canada in the early 18th, the French settlers were subjected to a ruthless “ethnic cleansing.” Some of the survivors eventually made it to Louisiana, where they still form a recognizable group and still speak French (or at least, their own version of French). Many of the Cajuns settled in the swamps and bayous, but there are also “prairie Cajuns” who raise cattle and rice.
So what exactly is going on here? Well, every Mardi Gras morning, the participants in the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras dress in costumes, mask, and set out on horseback (and on wagon beds—an important component, since the wagons hold the beer and the portapotties). Ranging over the countryside, they sing, dance, and beg at each house until the owners offer them some of the ingredients for gumbo. Since one of the ingredients is chicken, this frequently involves live chickens being tossed into the air. The revelers—usually in increasing stages of intoxication—chase the chickens in a free-for-all that has been likened to (drunk) football players trying to recover a fumble.
The costume is traditional. The capuchons or conical hats date back to the Middle Ages and are meant to mock the headdresses of medieval noblewomen. The fringes and patches also hark back to the days of tattered poverty.
While the Courir participants are out chasing chickens and sausages, the people left in town wander around an arts and crafts fair, listen to live Cajun and Zydeco bands, and dance in the streets. By late afternoon, the Courir returns and parades down Main Street. We’re talking hundreds of riders, dancing on their horses, riding backwards, covered in mud from chasing chickens through crawfish ponds, and still drinking beer. At the end of it all, the chickens, onions, tomatoes, etc, they’ve collected are used to prepare a great communal meal of gumbo.
I’ve always wanted to experience the Courir de Mardi Gras, but we actually ended up spending this year’s Mardi Gras in Eunice thanks to a bit of serendipity. A couple of weeks ago an email appeared in my mailbox entitled “Long lost cousin?” You see, genealogy is one of my passions, and I’ve been in touch with a couple in Germany (with access to incredibly well-preserved church records) who have a huge site dedicated to tracing one part of my mother’s family back so far it’s scary. Well, it turns out that “Ed” is my third cousin once removed. A branch of my great-grandfather’s family traveled up the river to Acadia and settled in the Eunice, Mowata, and Roberts Cove area at the end of the nineteenth century. Their descendents have interbred with the Cajuns, so although I don’t have a drop of Cajun in me personally, a lot of these inebriated revelers are my distant cousins.
Which is how I ended up spending the day watching a bunch of drunks on horseback chase chickens.
Happy Mardi Gras everybody!