Yesterday, I spent the day in Eunice to help the Prarie Acadian Cultural Center staff with the influx of crowds. Mardi Gras is celebrated differently in Cajun Country. The "Courir de Mardi Gras" involves horseback runs, chicken chasing, ceremonial begging rituals that come from Medieval France, and, of course, music, dancing, and food.
The "run" starts in the morning. Participants are required to wear traditional costumes (I'll get to that in a minute). They travel from house to house in the countryside, essentially begging for whatever they can get to contribute to the communal gumbo that will be served later in the evening. What tends to happen is the house will contribute some form of live poultry (today more for the sport of the holiday). Chickens, guineas, or even ducks, are thrown into the wildly dressed crowds and they must catch the chicken. Bragging rights and more food for the gumbo follow. The afternoon parade through Eunice had hundreds of horses, several folks in their traditional costumes riding or walking, and some of the trailers that were used to transport the participants in the run earlier in the day.
These Mardi Gras celebrations are hundreds of years old. In Medieval France, as the winter was ending and peasant were running out of their winter stores (on the verge of starving), they had a day of communal begging. The peasants would go around and beg for whatever they could get to gather a last supply of food before Spring. Lent eventually comes into play, as the Catholic church assimilated the local tradtions of lack-of-food into a church holiday. Some Catholic churches practice Shrove Tuesday and some practice Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). One last day of feasting before a forty-day fasting period (tradtionally forty days before Springtime abundance in crops, eventually the Church incorporates Easter into the Springtime renewal as well... I am a little fuzzy where the egg-producing-bunny comes into play). I am getting sidetracked!!
These begging days would be days to diguise fully a person to be a better begger. You don't want a neighbor to know you were begging! Full costumes, hats, and masks would be a part of the day.
These costumes are on display at the Prarie Acadian Cultural Center.
Eventually, the begging rituals evolved into a holiday that included mockery of royalty, of wealthy, and of those in power. The pointy, fringed hats (called "capuchon") that are still used today, descend from Medieval courtly women's dress (think "Camelot"). The day was accepted as a celebration between classes; the peasants could beg from the rich while mocking them and the rich provided the beggars with something.
Today, modern innovations (like the refridgerated section at the grocery store) eliminates the whole life-dependency-on-seasons for first world countries. But the traditions remain. In fact, these types of celebrations can be found in several pockets throughout North America- all places where French populations settled.
Now the following forty days is supposed to be a sacrificial time, traditionally a time where no meat is allowed. I have had some older Cajuns tell me, however, that their seafood gumbo is so good that it is hard to think of it as a sacrifice. The joie de vivre (joy of living) can't be suppressed by even the somberest of holidays around here.
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