It’s 5 a.m., too early in the morning to think about revelry, and yet here are dozens of people gathering at a ranch just outside of Elton, Louisiana. There’s a flotilla of pickup trucks, SUVs, horse trailers, flatbed trailers, and other support vehicles (including a “chuck wagon” and a pickup with a portable sound system), plus at least several dozen horses.
The crowd of mostly men is in costume – brightly colored, loose-fitting pajama-like garb, covered with fringes and topped with pointy dunce caps. Everyone is masked, and the mask of choice is made of wire screen – “shell-shaker screen” if possible, a legacy of the oil-drilling rigs that used to be prevalent in these parts. The masks are hand-painted and sometimes garnished with outlandish trinkets, and the costumes are mostly handmade. The mysterious effect of the screen mask is that you can see there’s a person in there, but you really can’t make out their features. Your eye focuses on the painted face, with the unsettling phantom figure behind it.
By mornin’s first light, there are at least a hundred Mardi Gras (which is what the participants call themselves) taking part in Elton’s annual Courir de Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Run. Elton is one of a dozen or so communities in South Louisiana that hold their own version of Fat Tuesday.
The Cajuns and Mardi Gras
In 1755, a large number of former French colonists who had been living in the Canadian province of Acadia were exiled to Louisiana. There they met up with other French expatriates, as well as folks of Spanish, German, and African descent. The groups adapted to their new environment and local influences and eventually blended into what we now call the Cajun culture, widely known for its spicy food and rousing music.
Mardi Gras is part of the Cajun cultural heritage, and although the rest of the world has heard about the urban incarnation of Mardi Gras – as practiced in New Orleans – South Louisiana’s rural celebrations have remained largely unknown to outsiders until relatively recently.
Although it’s associated now with the church calendar – the last feast before the start of the fasting period of Lent – Mardi Gras contains echoes and rituals that predate Christianity. Along with Mardi Gras and even certain Christmastime customs, Mardi Gras is thought to have its roots in the Greek Bacchanalia and Roman Saturnalia, occasions where for a brief time, the social order was turned upside down.
Like European Christmas Mummers, a cadre of Mardi Gras runners will make the rounds of their neighbors’ houses, begging for food or money to support a communal feast. In Louisiana, the feast’s signature dish is a gumbo, and the custom is to beg for its ingredients – rice, sausage, and most important of all, a chicken. Typically the chicken is delivered live, thrown over the heads of an expectant crowd of costumed Mardi Gras, who proceed to capture it at all costs. The chicken chase has become the event that many of the participants and spectators look forward to. At Elton, they give an award to the person who has captured the most birds at the end of the day.
I was told that once they are captured, the chickens are not treated cruelly, although, of course, they do end up in the gumbo pot. Nonetheless, the celebration of Mardi Gras includes many images and pastimes that are not for the faint of heart. It is, according to folklorist and anthropologist Barry Ancelet, decidedly “not politically correct.”
You may see men dressed as women, men in blackface, mock hangings, excessive drinking, and ritualized whipping, along with physical feats of daring and bravado. Mardi Gras wants to push the envelope, it wants to poke fun at everything and everyone – including you, the spectator. Sooner or later, you’ll become a participant as you’re solicited for coins. Along with the treat, there is likely to be a trick, so don’t be surprised if your shoelace is untied as you reach into your pocket for change.
The mood in all of this is lighthearted. In a week of witnessing Mardi Gras activities in Elton and Basile, I never saw one mean-spirited act. Lots of laughs, lots of camaraderie, lots of good-natured fooling around, with enough of an edge to keep you on your toes. Says Barry Ancelet, “When you get tickled it makes you laugh, but it makes you feel uncomfortable, and you wish it wasn’t being done. So in a lot of ways, Mardi Gras is like tickling society.”
An Intentional Disruption
Mardi Gras reminds me of jazz. There’s a structure, a set of rules, and within that framework, there’s room for play, improvisation, ritualized conflict, and ultimately, resolution. Ancelet, a professor of French and folklore at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, puts it this way: “I think societies apparently need and enjoy these moments of disruption. Now, in talking about Mardi Gras, what is the disruption? Guys show up at a neighbor’s house and they’re pretending to steal his wheelbarrow and the ladder off his barn, and his shoes, and they force his wife to come and dance with them. Well, those are pretend disruptions. It gives you a chance to feel like you’re going wild and ignoring the constraints of everyday life.
“On Mardi Gras day you see bankers dressed as bums, on their knees begging for money. That’s a wonderful release, but it’s not real. I mean, if the banker does that [becomes a beggar] the next day society is disturbed. Really disturbed. Now there have been cases where Mardi Gras has spilled over into reality, where the pretend chaos has become actual chaos. It happened in the late 16th century [at a town] in France, where, under the guise of Mardi Gras, some people who were interested in overthrowing the authority in town actually did it. And it was so scandalous, so unthinkably horrible to have produced actual chaos while hiding behind the pretense of chaos, that Mardi Gras was eliminated in the town from then on.
“So there’s a trust implied. You seem to be stealing my shoes, but I’m understanding that you’re not actually going to do that. … And this is … the essence of Mardi Gras. It disturbs you, and then it brings you back. It actually ends up reaffirming society’s norms, after having disturbed them for a while.”
Elton usually holds its run on the weekend before the official day of Mardi Gras (this year, that’s February 27). Half the participants make the rounds on horseback; the others follow along on flatbed trailers, sitting on bales of hay. The route is predetermined; householders and shopkeepers know in advance if they’re going to be visited by a hundred or so costumed Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, the ritual is that one of the capitaines – who are unmasked, wearing capes and cowboy hats, and sporting burlap whips – approaches an establishment and officially asks if they want to receive the Mardi Gras. Once the owner assents, the capitaine waves his flag (in Basile, they also blow a hunting horn) and the Mardi Gras runners descend upon the property. They’re accompanied by a small band of musicians (on accordion, violin, and guitar), who play the official Mardi Gras song and then a waltz. The runners will dance with each other, beg for coins, and then, hopefully, chase a chicken.
It’s become the unofficial custom at Elton for the runners to harass and play pranks on the capitaines – attempting to steal their whips and hats, and trying to get a head start on the chicken chase. For their efforts, the runners are likely to get a good whack with the burlap whip – considered a rite of passage by the young men.
Says Potic Rider, capitaine and president of the Mardi Gras Association in Basile, Louisiana: “The part of our costume that comes from the old country is our hat, the capuchin. It’s based on the dunce’s hat. In the old country, the Mardi Gras would make fun of the king and queen and high-society people. They would try to make them look like dunces.
“From what my parents used to tell me, they used to have different costumes when they came down from Nova Scotia. Once they got here, they incorporated an Indian design. The suits have tassels hanging down the legs. …We start preparing our suits from the end of the last Mardi Gras. Sometimes it takes all year, and they’re still not finished!”
Each of the Cajun communities that holds a Mardi Gras run has developed a celebration with a style and feel all its own. In Basile, five miles [eight kilometers] east of Elton, they have a children’s run a few days before Mardi Gras. Then, on the big day, men and women run together, making the rounds in flatbed trailers towed by pickups. Their musical ensemble includes a triangle (bas trang) player, along with the accordion and violin. Basile is particularly proud of its own version of the Mardi Gras song. It’s sung with great gusto at every location of the Mardi Gras visit, just before the masked troops solicit the householders and assorted spectators for contributions.
There are a few old-timers in Basile who have refined the tradition of ritual begging into an art form. The idea, say veterans Potic Rider and Vories Moreau, is to change your costume every year, and disguise your voice and your gestures so that even your neighbors won’t know it’s you. When I interviewed Vories a day before Mardi Gras, he assured me that I wouldn’t recognize him when he “begged me” the next day – and he was right!
I was told that a good Mardi Gras will always try to extort as much as he possibly can from a potential donor, but he always knows when to stop. Likewise, a Mardi Gras’ antics walk a fine line between the hilarious, the unexpected, the embarrassing, and the naughty. If they go too far, the capitaines are there, whips in hand, to set them straight. In Basile and elsewhere, this give and take is part of the entertainment, as Mardi Gras climb roofs and trees and feign running off with barbecues, bicycles, and small children.
Although the Mardi Gras are enjoined to keep their masks on throughout the entire day, in Basile at the end of a visit to a household, a few Mardi Gras runners will sometimes linger, take off their masks to reveal themselves to their neighbors, and sing a verse from their song.
From dawn until midday, Basile’s Mardi Gras run goes from the town to the outlying countryside, tarrying for a while for a big gumbo lunch at Mrs. Edna Redlich’s house before forming a triumphal procession back to town for a street dance. Around 5 p.m., everyone goes home to rest and to change costumes. The celebration reconvenes around 7 p.m. at the town barn with a gumbo dinner, a grand march, a dance, and a competition. Prizes are given in several categories, including most innovative costume and most (intentionally) ugly!
Potic Ryder says that “running Mardi Gras is like letting the air out of a balloon. We wait for this all year. When it’ s over, it’s a relief, ’cause you’re really worn out.”
At the end of the day, there’s an exhilaration mixed with the exhaustion, as if you and the whole town have made it through a rite of passage, the collective cathartic tickle known as Mardi Gras.
To learn more about Cajun Mardi Gras, check out the excellent Central Acadiana Gateway site maintained by Louisiana State University at Eunice. By the way, Eunice holds a mammoth Mardi Gras with close to a thousand runners. At Eunice and some of the other runs, a visit could be timed to coincide with the runners’ afternoon return to town, where a street dance is often held.
Special thanks to David, Lorraine, and all the Bertrands and to Potic and Sandy Rider for their boundless generosity, good will, and warmth; to Barry Ancelet for his treasure trove of knowledge and stories, helping me to begin to understand the meaning of Mardi Gras; to Tom Woodin, patient friend, stalwart compadre, maskmaker, photographer, and naturalist extraordinaire; to Carolyn Ware, Kim Moreau, Vories Moreau, and Carl Lindahl for generously sharing their love of Mardi Gras (Carolyn and Carl’s book, Cajun Mardi Gras Masks, published in 1997 by University Press of Mississippi, has a wonderful collection of photographs and is a great introduction to the rural Mardi Gras); to Nick Spitzer for his excellent Smithsonian monograph on Mardi Gras; to Ben Sandmel and Syndey Byrd for telling me about Cajun Mardi Gras in the first place; and to the townspeople and Mardi Gras runners in Elton and Basile – my sincere thanks for sharing your infectious enthusiasm and for making a Northerner feel right at home.
One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2001.
All photographs by Jim Metzner and Tom Woodin. Sound recordings and videos by Jim Metzner.
Cajun country map by Jennifer Mapes.
Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation.
This feature originally appeared on NationalGeographic.com and appears here with their kind permission.
© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions . All rights reserved.