Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mardi Gras, Cajun Style

This is how Fat Tuesday is celebrated in the Cajun parishes of southern Louisiana.

It’s called the Courir de Mardi Gras, and it’s an ancient tradition that dates back to the middle ages. Bands of masked and costumed revelers set out early in the morning on horseback and in hay wagons to rove from farm to farm. Singing and dancing (and drinking—a lot), they beg the ingredients for a traditional gumbo, namely rice, onions, garlic, sausages, and chickens.

The chickens are the real prizes, since they’re thrown into the air and the riders compete with each other to grab them, scrambling through rice fields and crawfish ditches. The result tends to involve a lot of mud.

The Cajuns of Louisiana are descendants of the French farmers who settled in what was once called Acadia but is now Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1604 (that’s sixteen years before the sailing of the Mayflower). There they lived and prospered for generations until Britain conquered Acadia and, in 1755, subjected the area to a ruthless “ethnic cleansing.” The villages and farms of the French Catholics were burned, their inhabitants driven out. More than half—men, women, and children by the thousands—died. Many of those who survived made their way to southern Louisiana, where their descendants still form a recognizable community, speaking a strange, eighteenth-century French dialect, cooking incredibly spicy food, making wonderful, foot-tapping music, and riding in the annual courir de Mardi Gras.

While the participants in the Courir de Mardi Gras are off riding around the countryside, everyone else is in town, listening to Zydeco music, dancing, eating, and waiting for the riders to return. They generally stagger back into town around three o’clock, proudly bearing the results of their quest as they parade through the streets in a rowdy display that typically includes some pretty amazing equestrian acrobatics. Think about dancing (drunk) on top of your saddle while your horse is walking through a roaring crowd. Think about dancing drunk on top of your saddle while holding a squawking chicken.

The costumes are traditional, colorful smocks and trousers decorated with patches and fringe. The conical hats are called capuchons, and are meant to mock the pointed hats worn by the noblewomen of the middle ages. One also sees miters and mortarboards, for the whole point (originally) was to make fun of the wealthy, the ordained, and the well educated. The masks are made of window screens and can be quite elaborate.

The day ends with a communal feast of gumbo and a fais-do-do, or street dance. And since I sent my book winging on its way (finally!) to New York on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), I was able to relax and have a very good time.


laughingwolf said...

thx candy... i live in halifax now, and know of the atrocities the british subjected the french to :(

CAJUN is the bastardization of ACADIEN, of course

one of my best friends is of a family from what we call the south shore, they even have a village named after them: COMEAUVILLE, in the southern part of nova scotia

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds much like the plot of some southern gothic horror film.

Sphinx Ink said...

Your Mardi Gras sounds like fun. Which town were you in?

Congrats on getting the ms. finished and on its way. (I look forward to your report at our next Wordsmiths meeting.)

cs harris said...

laughingwolf, I can remember learning the sad history of the Acadiens/Cajuns when we read Evangeline in grade school, but I'm always amazed at how few people know it. I guess we don't like it when the supposed "good guys" do something bad.

Charles, it would definitely make a good scene in book, although I see it more as comedy than horror.

Sphinx Ink, we were in Eunice. And thanks for the congrats!

Steve Malley said...

Here we just sacrifice strangers to our Pagan Corn God to ensure the harvest.

Nah, really, it's so cool to see Mardi Gras away from the Big Sleazy. Thanks!

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