Cajun Mardi Gras Celebrations – History, Traditions, & Songs
Cajun Mardi Gras traditions date back to medieval France (and perhaps earlier; many scholars see clear ties between these traditions and pre-Christian pagan celebrations) when, on the “anything goes” holiday celebrating the last day before the Lenten fast, peasants would dress up in ridiculous costumes, generally ridiculing their “superiors” (Nobles, Clergy, and Intelligentsia). They would then travel around their area seeking alms or handouts. The mummers of England and modern Halloween celebrations have similar roots.
What Cajun Mardi Gras is Today:
In small towns in rural Louisiana, the Mardi Gras riders wake up early, get into costume, saddle up the horse and begin traversing their local village in a large parade-style group. At each house, they dismount and beg for an ingredient for a gumbo. Generally, the homeowner will throw them a live chicken, which they must catch, resulting in much hilarity (though some animal rights activists have concerns about this practice). Beer is a major factor in the celebration as well, making it all the more fun to watch.
Most Mardi Gras costumes are simply pants and shirts bearing large fringes of multicolored fabric. Some people are decorated with traditional Mardi Gras colors of Green, Purple, and Gold, but many are wildly multicolored. Masks and hats are also often worn, including the traditional capuchon, a tall, pointed hat.
Each group of Mardi Gras riders (which sometimes number in the hundreds) is accompanied by a local Cajun band, who play the traditional “Mardi Gras Song” at each house. The band rides on a “bandwagon”, often equipped with loudspeakers or a PA system so everyone can hear.
Joining in a Mardi Gras Run
While outsiders generally are not allowed to join the actual groups of people who are catching the chickens, they are welcome to follow behind the riders and the bandwagon. The run in Eunice, Louisiana has become so popular among outsiders, in fact, that the 2005 run had a few thousand people following behind the actual Mardi Gras riders.
The End of the Day
When all the chickens have been caught, the riders head back into town, where dance is held and the chickens are cooked into a gumbo (a spicy chicken and sausage stew). At midnight, all celebrations end, for Lent has started and it’s time to repent.
Towns With Mardi Gras Runs
Most towns in the prairie regions of Southwest Louisiana have Mardi Gras runs, although some of them actually take place on the few days preceding Fat Tuesday. Towns with well-known runs include Eunice, Mamou, Iota, Basile and Church Point.
Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday. Also used to refer simply to the riders, called “Les Mardi Gras.”
Capitaine – The man in charge of keeping a group of Mardi Gras riders under control and leading the way.
Gumbo – A spicy chicken and sausage stew, eaten at the end of the day.
Charite’ – French word for “charity”, refers to the alms given out by neighbors.
Courir – French word for “run”, refers to the Mardi Gras run as a whole.
The Cajun Mardi Gras Song – History and Background
The Cajun Mardi Gras Song, also known as “La Danse de Mardi Gras” and “La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras,” is an important musical accompaniment to any traditional Mardi Gras Courir. With a melody that is likely as ancient as the begging tradition itself, it’s a necessary part of the day, and should you choose to take part in a Cajun Mardi Gras celebration, it’s worth learning the words.