Courir de Mardi Gras
The courir de Mardi Gras is the rural celebration of Mardi Gras in Louisiana, usually held in Cajun communities
The courir de Mardi Gras (literally to “run” Mardi Gras) is a rural and lesser-known Cajun counterpart to urban celebrations of Fat Tuesday in such cities as New Orleans and Lafayette. For the courir, disguised revelers convene before dawn at a predetermined locale, typically a participant’s farmstead. They form a costumed band that travels either on horseback or by tractor-drawn trailers throughout a rural community, calling on neighbors, relatives, and friends. Playing the dual role of a jester and beggar, the revelers sing, dance, and perform comic antics in exchange for “a little fat chicken,” guinea hens, rice, sausage, onions, or lard—all ingredients for a communal gumbo that is served later that evening. Fowl are generally donated alive, requiring revelers to chase and capture chickens and guinea hens. The tradition functions as a ritualistic means of creating, sustaining, and defining the boundaries of rural communities in southern Louisiana.
Rural and Urban Mardi Gras Traditions
Though very different in appearance, the courir de Mardi Gras and the festivities in New Orleans share the same historical antecedent. Two days before Lent in 1699, French Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville brought this Latin festival to the American Gulf Coast when his naval expedition disembarked at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The francophones in Iberville’s command made camp at a location that the commandant christened “Pointe du Mardi Gras” (Mardi Gras Point).
While the historical details of Mardi Gras in colonial Louisiana are hazy, oral histories led anthropologist Rocky Sexton and musicologist Harry Oster to conclude that “Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras songs were a long-standing tradition by the mid-nineteenth century.” By the century’s end, Louisiana boasted at least two distinct variants of Mardi Gras. In urban areas, particularly New Orleans, the Creole and Anglo American elite organized parades and balls, while working-class Cajun communities in Louisiana’s southwestern prairies celebrated the rural courir.
The courir celebration was dominated by men until World War II interrupted Mardi Gras runs in rural Louisiana. When the war ended, many communities were slow to reinstitute local festivals. Community activists such as Paul Tate, however, worked to revive the tradition in Mamou and other communities. During the 1950s, loosely organized bands of masked women also began to roam the countryside in Pointe Noire, Eunice, Duralde, Basile, and Tee Mamou, paralleling their male counterparts—perhaps an indirect consequence of women having entered the workforce in World War II.
Though there are approximately thirty versions of the courir de Mardi Gras, the celebrations can be distinguished by the participants’ method of travel. While some runners travel on horseback, others ride on tractor-drawn wagons, and a few use a combination of horses and wagons. There are all-male, all-female, mixed gender, and—most recently—all-children runs. The use of whips constitutes perhaps the most striking difference among the revelers. In whipping celebrations such as those in Tee Mamou, l’Anse LeJeune, and Hathaway, captains wield thick, braided burlap whips to keep order. Scholars believe the whipping ritual descends from a pre-Christian festival known as Lupercalia, in which participants would run past bystanders, whipping them with a goat skin thong as a fertility demonstration. In some courirs, revelers willingly endure the whippings, which are not violent in nature. In others, part of the tradition includes attempts by the runners to take the whip away from the captain.
Both all-female and all-male runs are led by unmasked male capitaines. The men often wear a cowboy hat or baseball cap while carrying flags symbolizing their authority. Capitaines act as mediators between the Mardi Gras runners and the community. In exchange for providing entertainment for the community, they procure ingredients for the gumbo. Moreover, it is the capitaine’s responsibility to assure homeowners that the revelers will not steal from them or damage their property.
Courir de Mardi Gras Costumes
Costumes vary widely from community to community in accordance with local customs. Some participants chose to wear mortar boards, bishop’s miters, or commercially made Halloween masks depicting everything from monsters to US presidents. Capuchons, or conical hats, are among the most prevalent Mardi Gras regalia. Communities such as Tee Mamou insist that runners wear handmade screen or needlepoint masks in addition to capuchons, thus creating a niche market for mask makers such as Suson Launey, Renée Frugé Douget, Allen and Georgie Manuel and Jackie Miller. Collectively, these women have made hundreds of masks and colorful costumes from hand-sewn remnants. Often, various grotesque features are added to the masks; stuffed hosiery, for example, is sometimes used to create an absurdly long nose or exaggerated lips.
In some communities, specialized characters called the nègre and nègresse paint their faces black in lieu of masks. Often portrayed by the same individuals every year, these two characters act as unofficial captains while performing in blackface like end men from a minstrel show. This tradition not only has stirred debate about the racial politics of the nègre and nègresse but also has created tension between communities and ethnographers. In Afro-Creole communities, people of color have also donned whiteface. The practice is thought to be a manifestation of the traditional Mardi Gras masking custom of assuming an opposite or markedly different identity for the holiday.
Mardi Gras Songs
Singing is another important component of the rural Mardi Gras celebration, and two basic variants are found in celebrations across Acadiana. The first type—lyrics sung with instrumental arrangement—is organized with a minor modal chord progression. These songs describe the characteristics and purpose of the Mardi Gras run: “We get together once a year, to ask for charity/Even if it is just a skinny chicken, or three or four ears of corn.” The song concludes with an invitation to “join us for gumbo later tonight.” A number of Cajun musicians—including the Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire—have recorded different versions of this composition. The second song variant is a French drinking song that is performed a cappella as revelers approach a home. In the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras, for instance, approximately ten people line up shoulder to shoulder over several rows and sing the song while slowly creeping toward their neighbor. This particular variant describes a dwindling bottle of alcohol.
Most of the participants hail from within the community that sustains the festival, though outsiders have increasingly begun to participate. Outside interest and sustained local engagement have perpetuated the courir de Mardi Gras. Its longevity and vitality has surpassed similar French North American traditions, such as la Guignolée, a New Year’s Eve rite of singing a French begging song door to door (still observed in the French settlements of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve, Missouri) and charivari, a folk custom that often involved yelling, singing, and banging pots and pans at the home of a newlywed couple.