While hordes of drunken tourists jam the French Quarter streets of New Orleans or Lafayette, Cajuns like me a few hours away are getting ready for another Mardi Gras tradition: the Courir de Mardi.
Also called Cajun Mardi Gras, Country Mardi Gras, or "The Run," this is the crazy rural cousin to what happens in New Orleans.
You can tell we're related, but out here in Acadiana, things are a little wilder, a little weirder. We wear colorful homemade costumes, recklessly ride horses, and whip folks who get out of line. We consume vast quantities of booze, gumbo, boudin, and psychedelic mushrooms. A trailer full of the area's finest musicians playing Cajun music for the crowd replaces the high school bands.
In the end, one of the Acadian revelers chases down a chicken and throws it in the air.
Every Cajun country community does it differently. It's hard to explain everything you may see or experience on the run. So I'll just tell you how my friends and I do it in St. Landry/Evangeline Parish at the Faquetaique Courir de Mardi gras.
The day begins at the Popeyes drive thru, a bayou staple. Once I have obtained my giant box of spicy chicken and picked up a bottle of Champagne to wash it down, it's off to the fabric store. I fill bags with colorful fabrics, thin wire screens, and hot glue sticks with a theme in mind. Traditionally the costumes are torn rags sewn to old clothes.
Our hats make fun of the clergy, nobility, or the educated. I like to add an animal theme to my costumes. Over the years, I've been a feral hog professor, a Cardinal Cardinal, and an Alligator Pope. This year I will be a deer Court Jester. Supplies bought, it's off to my nesting spot to get busy. I'll spend the next couple of days sitting on the porch, hot glue gun in hand, with the sounds of parades in the background.
Friends will come to sit for a while, drink some, and do costume repairs. As Sunday rolls around and I have finished my costume, I start on the mask and hat. Following tradition, I make a hat mocking royalty, clergy, or the educated. No one can be part of Mardi Gras without a full costume. There aren't many rules, but this one is most important.
On Monday, the day before the run, all finishing touches on the costumes are done, and then it's time to go out and dance. Tuesday starts rough, but the giddiness you feel knowing you are about to do something exciting takes over. We pack up costumes, snacks, and other provisions. You are about to walk five miles in the country. You will need good shoes, toilet paper, and enough to drink (the good and the bad stuff).
It's 6 am, and off we go, collecting groggy friends and giving them boudin and biscuits to heal their pain. We're pulling up just under an hour later, parking on the side of a country gravel road where we put on our costumes and head to the registration booth.
This Mardi Gras run was started by Joel Savoy and Linzay Young, local musicians and Louisiana history and culture champions. The festivities begin at the Savoy land on Hwy 758 in Eunice. Once you pay your entrance fee, they give you a custom-designed Faquetaique sticker. Every year they design a new cloth sticker-you will see numerous costumes with multiple stickers showing their pride for the number of years they've taken part. Once you turn the corner, you instantly realize this will be a day you will never forget.
If you are a newbie, you head to the front of the crowd of brightly costumed people to do the initiation. Don't worry, it's just a little whiskey. Once your Capitaine has approved you and sent you to join the crowd, it's time to start walking. Le Capitaine is your leader, and he will now refer to the entire group as " Mardi Gras." Villains will keep Mardi Gras in line if you think you can escape supervision. Unlike other Runs, our Villains are mainly women. They're hard to miss in their red and black costumes carrying the whips they use to control the Mardi Gras.
As you walk, you will see the chaos the villains face. Wrestling in the mud is a favorite for taunting. As one of the villains approaches to stop it from getting out of control, they must avoid being taken down, for taking down a villain in the mud is a goal for many. Imagine controlling a crowd when half of them try to put your face in the mud.
Not in the mood for too much physical interaction, but would like to get a taste of the whip? Take off your mask, or God forbid, pull out some Mardi Gras beads. You will get a less satisfying light snap of the whip. Remember, unlike other whipping situations, there is no safe word-you get what you give.
If you are more of an observer like me, you will enjoy spectacular people-watching. There's so much to see and do as we casually stroll along: hundreds of costumes to judge, whips flying at naughty ones, weak ones loading into trailers, and strange, meaningful conversations with masked strangers. Live music plays behind us as we head to the first stop. Don't worry; most of the visits are at houses the owners have approved. Just go into approved yards, or neighbors may whip you for trespassing.
Le Capitaine, with a booming voice that orders the Mardi Gras to get down. Down on your knees, we go. The Mardi Gras then sings the traditional song, begging the family to contribute things to the communal gumbo that celebrates the end of the run. Once done, Le Capitaine appears with a chicken in his hand, dropping it in the front of the Mardi Gras. The chicken chase is on. The winner gets his 10 seconds of fame, and then we are off to the next house.
While some stroll, others run like crazy and wrestle in the mud. During this part of the stroll, the port-o-potties on the trailer supply a surprise show. It happens like this. By this time, ladies have started to feel the effects of morning drinking, and when the Mardi Gras stops, they scurry up to the bathroom trailer.
Unfortunately, they do not realize Mardi Gras stops for no one. An unlucky few are locked in there when the campers start again. It's terrible, I know. But the shrieks and hastily flung-open doors as they grasp the many parts of their costume bring me so much joy. The look on their face when they realize this is their personal float for a while is what I look forward to.
There is no escape from the trailer until it stops. You now must sit and wait. They say the whiskey is the initiation. This is the actual one.
The halfway point is a beautiful field with a 40-foot pole in the middle. As many of us sit and enjoy the complimentary boudin, we watch the rest of Mardi Gras try to clamor up this grease pole. The guinea hen at the top is their prize. Every year it is the same. It starts out with individuals grasping and fighting to climb to the top. Slowly the Mardi Gras realizes they must work together, and a few lucky ones are chosen to climb.
With no words spoken, the crowd joins together to form a mountain of rags for them to climb on. Pushing them to the top, the crowd erupts in cheer as the victorious one holds the prize in their hands.
Looking out in the field, you see a blur of colors as the crowd runs and plays like children let out for recess. No need for extracurriculars that your mawmaw wouldn't approve of to feel like you've crossed over into another dimension. "Allons, Mardi Gras," yells Le Capitaine. The pace slows as the food, drink, and shenanigans start to hit. The next stop is a graveyard, and we all sit to watch local musicians play a tune to honor loved fiddler Dennis McGee.
Costumes are falling apart, and the villains are starting to control this Mardi Gras day. A couple more stops and a couple more chickens to chase. In the old days, families gave the chickens to contribute to the community gumbo at the end. The chase is just for fun, and we return the live chickens.
The final walk is to the starting point. We'll see everyone lounging, eating gumbo, and listening to the Cajun tunes flowing from the tent full of dancers. You sit there tired, but that good tired where you feel like you did something powerful that will fill you with memories. Memories of meeting strangers and never seeing their faces, chasing chickens, eating boudin as an array of bright colors flow around a field.
Today you let it all go, everything you think you are supposed to be, all the burdens the world has put on you. Today you were just part of the Mardi Gras celebration where no one has status. Today, your only responsibility is to enjoy your life.
If you want to check out Cajun Mardi Gras for yourself, here are a few good ones.
- Faquetaique Courir de Mardi Gras, March 1, 8-p.m., 872 Highway 758 Eunice, LA. See their Facebook page for more info.
- Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras, March 1, 8 am .501 Samuel Drive, Eunice, LA. See their Facebook page Le Vieux Mardi Gras De Cajuns de Eunice, La.
- Tee-Mamou Courir de Mardi Gras (men only run), March 1, 8 am American Legion Hall, Downtown Mamou.
- Churchpoint Courir de Mardi Gras (men only run), Feb 22. For more information, their Facebook page is Church Point Mardi Gras
- Churchpoint Children's Courir de Mardi Gras, Feb 26. For more information, their Facebook page is Church Point Mardi Gras
- The towns of Eunice, Mamou, and Churchpoint have many events spanning over many days leading up to their Courirs. While some runs are men-only, all observers are welcome, and there is plenty of parades, music, and events to keep you entertained.
What's your favorite Mardi Gras tradition? Share on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!
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