Many believe the standard of Mardi Gras is set in New Orleans. however, another region of Louisiana has a different spin on the Catholic celebration. At this party, krewes are not king, and the biggest celebrity you’re likely to see is a chicken.
“I think what it’s most known for is when the homeowner gives a chicken, which is usually alive,” Lucius Fontenot, co-owner of valcour records, said with a laugh. “They say, ‘yeah, I’ll give you a chicken, but you have to chase it.’” Whoa! Pump your brakes. Why are these people chasing a chicken?
Let’s start from the beginning. What we’re talking about is Courir de Mardi Gras, or as it is better known, Cajun Mardi Gras. It’s a celebration honored in the prairie-region of Louisiana in such cities as Church Point, Eunice, Mamou, Iota, etc. This part of the state is better known as Cajun country.
“The Cajuns were descendants of the Acadians,” Fontenot said. “They were Frenchspeaking people who were exiled by the British from Canada.”
The exile happened a hot minute ago in 1755.
Although many of the Acadians went back to France, a group landed here in the boot, which was occupied by the Spanish.
“They were asked by the Spanish to come here because they wanted to populate the area with more Catholics,” Fontenot said. “When the Acadians moved here, they quickly married with those French and Spanish settlers who were already living here.”
The colonial settlers of Louisiana became to be known as Creole. Mix one part Acadian with one part Creole and you’ve got a Cajun.
“Who are Cajuns today? There are some purists who say you have to have the bloodline from the Acadians. To me, a Cajun is someone in south Louisiana who has French heritage and who follows the traditions. It’s more of a way of life than a lineage through blood,” Fontenot said.
Like most of the early settlers in America, Cajuns are a group with strong ties to the lower class of French society. With few possessions, they held tight to tradition, including their ability to poke fun at those in control.
“The costumes are similar in type to those of the Mardi Gras done in old France, and they were a way of making fun of the aristocracy and the frilly way they dressed at court,” Fontenot explained. “Because they were peasants, all the costumes were homemade out of scraps.”
A strong sense of culture and preservation has remained in the area to this day, hence the continuation of the traditional costume.
“It includes shirts, pants and a hat,” Fontenot described. “The shirts are long-sleeved with lots of frills. Then there is a mask that’s traditionally made out of a screen and painted with some sort of face on it. Then, the hat, or the capuchin, is comical and pointed. If you think of the medieval times, think of the storybook pointed hat and you’ll get the idea of what it’s supposed to look like.
“The whole idea is to hide your identity and that the costume be colorful.”
The costume is worn for the big celebration known as the fete de la quemande, or the “feast of begging”. It’s held on the day before Ash Wednesday as a way of preparing for Lent.
“The idea is that mass riders wearing costume ride on horseback, or some walk, around the countryside and beg for ingredients to make a community gumbo,” Fontenot said. “As a way of showing gratitude to the homeowner who donates the ingredients, the riders will dance, sing and play music.”
Ah ha! This is where we get the chicken! yes, now you’re getting it!
“A homeowner will donate a chicken, but the tradition is that they give you a live chicken, and you have to catch it in order to use it in the community gumbo,” Fontenot said.
In this ride, however, the egg comes before the chicken…literally.
The whole process begins very, very early in the morning. The riders will gather in one central location lead by Le Capitaine.
“he is typically a strong fi gure of the community. usually, this is a Sheriff or deputy and his job is to keep everyone in line and not let anything get out of hand,” Fontenot said. “When the Mardi Gras approaches the house, the Capitaine approaches the home fi rst and alone. When the neighbor says it’s okay for the group to approach, the Capitaine waves his fl ag and the traditional Mardi Gras song is sang.
“There are usually a lot of practical jokes that go along, and even some wrestling,” Fontenot added. “In some places, the Capitaine has a whip, and he will whip you into acting proper.”
Don’t worry, these aren’t real whips. The goal isn’t to hurt people, it’s to have fun! In fact, much drinking is done along the way, which is good because you’ll probably want to be nice and sauced for the big fi nale – the chicken run.
“When the chicken is turned loose, it’s unreal,” Deputy Chief varden Guillory, Eunice Police Department, explained. “It becomes a competition. People will run through the mud and chase this chicken. It’s really a big deal. It’s a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
Just like the gumbo that results at the end of the day, the whole idea of mixing old traditions for the new generation is what attracts visitors.
“I see people from all over the world,” Guidry noted. “People will come from Britain, Canada, Brazil – they’ll hang around for the whole week.”
however, it is important for visitors to keep the nature of the tradition in mind.
“Listen to the people around you,” Fontenot added. “Everyone is nice and they want you to have a good time. We love visitors and we love to show off our culture if you pay attention. The important thing is to keep an open mind.”
Just like buying your way onto a fl oat in a New Orleans parade, money will often land you a spot among the riders, so long as you come dressed in costume. And seriously, how many times will you have the opportunity to get drunk and chase a chicken as people stand around and cheer?! Money well spent, I say.
Photo by Scott Mohrman