With Mardi Gras around the corner, many people around the world are preparing to celebrate in Bacchanalian (or a more urbane) style before the Christian penitential season of Lent begins next Wednesday. Most of us recognize the famous traditions of New Orleans, Venice and Rio de Janeiro, all wild and crazy in their individual manners of revelry. This post is for the reserved, moderate partygoers who desire a simpler, rural, folksy way to laissez les bons temps rouler (“let the good times roll”), and for those who are curious to learn about an edifying alternative to the bigger parties.
The Mardi Gras tradition stems from the Saturnalia festivals of ancient Rome. As it spread, the party came to be known as the Carneval, where the revelers would let loose before they bid carne valle, or “farewell to meat,” in reference to the fasting and abstinence that characterized the Lenten season. Later on, the tradition would reach medieval France, where villagers would wear gaudy costumes to ridicule the elite members of feudal society — namely, the nobility, the clergy, and the educated class. Eventually, that style would reach North America through French colonists settling around the Mississippi Delta in the early 1700s, and the Acadians that settled with them preserved it. The “Cajuns” — whose present courirs are the subject of the rest of this post — thus rollick in much the same way as their forebears did centuries ago.
The courir, or the French for “run”, is a day-long parade and begging ritual, with certain costumed villagers riding along a route and “begging” for ingredients for a gumbo stew to be made and enjoyed at the courir’s final destination. If families are situated along any portion of the parade route, they may give the beggars rice, sausage, or the chance to catch a live chicken. All along the way, paraders dance to traditional Cajun fiddle music dressed in homemade, often multi-colored garments, and tap the plentiful beer supply in earnest. An outsider might observe some paraders wearing capuchons, or tall pointed hats that feudal noblewomen once donned, as a way of mocking the nobility in general. Less common are the miters and mortarboards that would have targeted the clergy and the educated respectively, though all vivify the scene equally. The fun continues at the route’s end until midnight, when Ash Wednesday arrives and Lent begins.
If this way of “living it up” piques your interest and you would like to learn more about it, head on over to this page. May your Fat Tuesday be fat and Tuesday.
Image Source: Public domain, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.