It’s an image that’s forever emblazoned in my memory.
While most people think of New Orleans when they hear the term “Mardi Gras,” those of us in Cajun country grew up with a much different celebration of the holiday.
Flatbed trailers replace floats. Beer is king and his queen is boudin, and instead of throwing beads to passersby along the parade route, the riders are jumping off their horses and 4x4s and catching chickens.
I’m talking about the Courir de Mardi Gras, or the Mardi Gras Run. Very little has changed about the tradition over the years, and this is how I remember the “Cajun Mardi Gras” that I experienced growing up in rural Grand Prairie, just a few miles from Ville Platte.
It all starts at about 5 in the morning, when it’s still dark and the fog has not yet lifted. The 300 or so eager participants, including my brother, who’s 12 years my senior, and his closest friends, would meet in one central location and line up their horses, trailers and ice chests. They would all be dressed in colorful, homemade Mardi Gras costumes, topped with a capuchon, a pointed, decorated, tall hat. The most important part of the costume was the mask; after all, revelers needed to misbehave anonymously!
When I was a kid, the gathering took place at the elementary school and the whole process was led by Le Capitaine. Le Capitaine, or the captain, was always a well-respected member of the community. During my time, the school principal (yes, there was only one school in the community) was the captain. His role was to keep everyone in line, to the best of his ability, and prevent things from getting out of hand. And trust me, things always got out of hand. Not a year went by where someone didn’t break an ankle or a leg or get kicked in the mouth by a wayward horse.
The Capitaine was stationed at the head of the pack, and I can remember so clearly the excitement of seeing him on his horse, galloping toward my grandmother’s house. I would sit at the end of her driveway, about ½ mile from the opposite end of the road. The herd could be heard coming long before they were within sight. As soon as I saw the entourage turn down our dead-end road, I would take off, yelling, “Mawmaw! Mawmaw! They’re coming! They’re coming!” The Capitaine would get off of his horse and ask Mawmaw for permission to have the riders chase her chickens. She’d give them her blessing and let them know how many they were allowed to catch. She would also hand Le Capitaine a brown paper bag that included onions and bell peppers — straight from her garden.
photo by Gween Aucoin Photography
The Capitaine would summon his krewe and I’d run inside and peek through a bedroom window; it was as exciting as it was terrifying! They’d begin dancing for Mawmaw — a way of entertaining her and saying, “thanks in advance.” The captain would then open Mawmaw’s chicken coop, and the chickens would come excitedly flying out — not realizing their expiration was near. Complete chaos would ensue as grown men — and a few brazen women — would wrestle one another for the ultimate prize! Le Danse de Mardi Gras, or the Cajun Mardi Gras song, would blare (on REPEAT!) from someone’s makeshift sound system in the back of a pickup truck, and those who weren’t chasing chickens were two-stepping and cheering for their chicken-chasing counterparts.
photo by Gween Aucoin Photography
Why were these people chasing chickens, you ask? At the end of the Mardi Gras run, it was customary for the riders to all gather at the church hall and make a gumbo for the community using the ingredients they’d collected throughout the day. Sounds crazy? It was!
Of course, this was how all the good Cajuns kicked off the Lenten season. They ate and drank themselves into great Catholic guilt. It was the last hoorah, the very Fat Tuesday, before everyone gave up smoking or drinking or boudin for 40 days.
This tradition is still alive and well in many parts of Acadiana, and it is as unique as the people who celebrate it. Those who participate in the Courir de Mardi Gras wouldn’t dream of celebrating Mardi Gras any other way; for the excitement is in the thrill of the ride, the chase, the colorful costumes and masks, and the boudin — chased down with beer — for breakfast!
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