Mardi Gras festivals emphasize feasting and excess just before the fasting of the Christian Lenten season. Occurring on the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") is usually a processional celebration. Through towns and countryside alike, masked and costumed participants revel in rituals of chaos that include reversals of the social order. Men dress as women, women as men; the poor as rich, the rich as poor; old as young, young as old; black as white, white as black. Costumed as clowns, monsters, movie heroes, historical and political figures, the colorful and noisy celebrants sing, dance and play the fool with abandon. Behind the anonymity of masks, les Mardi Gras mock and ridicule the accepted social structure and push the boundaries of conventional social behavior.
Mardi Gras celebrations in the rural communities of southwest Louisiana differ from the world-famous city Carnival of New Orleans. Indeed, although they share similarities, Mardi Gras traditions in the countryside vary from community to community.
Unlike the lavish parades through the streets of New Orleans, the country Mardi Gras processions travel from home to home or to local business establishments, singing and dancing to the traditional Mardi Gras song in exchange for a contribution to the communal gumbo to be shared later that day. Donations may be coins or such ingredients as rice, cooking oil, onions, and sausage.
The most highly prized gift is a live chicken, released by the homeowner and chased down by les Mardi Gras who are hampered by masks, costumes, and their various states of inebriation. Chasing chickens is usually the role of women, who raise chickens in the yard of the home, and is a significant part of the day's mockery of convention. The chase and the performances provide great entertainment for the visited households as well as the masked beggars and, like the act of collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo, symbolize a festival based on the egalitarian values of everyone giving and everyone receiving.
Cajun and Creole Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras festivities in the rural Creole communities of southwest Louisiana are similar to those of their Cajun neighbors, but the separate celebrations maintain distinguishing characteristics as well. Both are begging processionals with connections to Old World traditions of mumming and Carnival. Both plan their Mardi Gras runs in advance, with days of preparation, including the sewing of costumes by wives and mothers and the selection of capitaines to maintain order while leading the costumed and masked band from house to house.
Both the Creole and Cajun capitaines are identified by the white flags they carry, but the Cajun capitaine also wears a black cape and cowboy hat. The Creole Mardi Gras runs are usually much smaller than the Cajuns, and they usually ride on flatbed trucks, whereas the Cajuns are on horseback.
One major difference is in "The Mardi Gras Song." In the Cajun community, an individual sings the song, or now it is more likely recorded or played over loud speakers from a music truck or van. In the Creole community, the song is a call-response chant between a lead clown and the other members of the Mardi Gras troupe. Like le capitaine, musicians accompanying the colorful group of revelers do not wear masks or costumes.
Of course, the culmination of Mardi Gras in both the Cajun and the Creole communities is the big dance at the local dance hall, where gumbo is served and people celebrate until midnight when Lent begins.
Women and Mardi Gras
In "Bon Cher Camarade," Nick Spitzer also notes the significance of women's roles in producing the communal Mardi Gras gumbo:
Spitzer: So on Mardi Gras day, the men are out chasing the chickens as women would normally be. Meanwhile, the women are back home, cleaning the chickens and assembling the food that's been collected as charité to make the gumbo dinner for the dance that night.
Unidentified Female Speaker: We clean it and then we cut it, and then you put it to boil to make a gumbo. We put a roux in there and put some [oil] in and all the seasonings, and there you go the gumbo. Let it cook. It's a hard job to clean that and cut all of that…Yeah, we have the hard job. When they come back, then they just have to eat and get ready for the dance.
Female Interviewer: Then do you get to go to the dance?
Female Speaker, laughing: Yes! I dance, too! After I go wash and [get] dressed up, and it don't look like I've been cleaning chickens.
Mardi Gras in Duralde
Mardi Gras in Duralde involves the men of the community gathering [early] on "Fat Tuesday" and traveling dressed as clowns to the homes in L'Anse 'Prian Noir and beyond on a flatbed truck to sing, dance, and beg for charité. At each house the capitaine, who is also the flagman in such a small band as this, requests permission to enter the yard.…The answer is usually "Ouais," and he waves the truck into the driveway with his flag. The clowns then disembark as the musicians assemble near the gate to the yard. Under the watchful eye of the capitaine, the clowns ask in song for charité and dance as many as three times, arm in arm, to show their worthiness. They are then rewarded with a chicken which is tossed in the air. This often leads a chaotic chase past gardens, through muddy rice fields, and across fences. Sometimes, however, a frozen chicken is laughingly thrown out as well as rice, cooking oil, coins, candy, ducks and turkeys. Toward the end of the day, the clowns are also rewarded with wine, whiskey, sausage, and cakes for immediate consumption. When all this has been gathered, they return to the club where the waiting women use the day's spoils to fix a gumbo. A huge dance is then initiated by the clowns marching into the dance hall and unmasking. At midnight, the festivities cease and Lent begins.
-from notes by Nick Spitzer for Zodico: Louisiana Creole Music. Rounder Records 6009, 1976; a CD of this album is now in preparation.
Mardi Gras runs are not without strict rules of conduct. For example, the authority of le capitaine is absolute. He leads the procession and distributes any liquor that is consumed. No member of the colorful band of beggars may enter private property without his permission. He approaches each farmhouse with raised white flag to ask permission from the homeowners for les Mardi Gras to enter. If he receives an invitation, he drops or waves the flag to signal the others. They are expected to sing and dance and beg with great energy at homes that are donating to the gumbo. The musicians, like le capitaine, do not mask or dress as clowns. As folklorist Nick Spitzer explains:
Mardi Gras provides an occasion when the performers of the community play it "straight" and the rest of the men perform-as clowns. The lead clown, renowned as a community hustler, drinker, and dancer, gets a chance to display his "reputation-seeking" behavior to the fullest when he is pitted against a capitaine whose role is to keep the Mardi Gras in line and respectable - not too drunk, not trampling gardens or causing trouble.… Both the capitaine and the musicians stay apart from the clowns on whom they keep a watchful eye and often chide. The lead clown likewise urges the capitaine to 'voyage ton flag' (wave your flag) and to lead the band to new houses. He may argue with the capitaine about the distribution of drink, the direction of the route or the behavior of his clowns. In this daylong drama of oppositions, the ideal community values represented in the respectable, orderly capitaine and the alternative values of play and 'reputation-seeking' among the men as clowns are exposed to great enjoyment of all involved.
-from CD notes for Zodico: Louisiana Creole Music.