The minute the words Mardi Gras are spoken, it conjures up images of the Carnival atmosphere of New Orleans. While, for many, this is nirvana to be surrounded by such revelry, South West Louisiana (SWLA) offers the traditional folk Mardi Gras steeped in the traditions of the Cajun ancestors who settled in SWLA in the mid-1700s.
The roots of the traditional 'Courir de Mardi Gras' are deep seated in medieval history. The culture of the Cajuns and Creoles who co-existed together in the swamps of the Bayou remains rich today. There was very little money in those days but these displaced French speaking people from Arcadia (Cajuns) and from Haiti and Africa, mixed with the Native American population (Creoles) thrived by turning hardships into joy through the community of their musical celebrations. Culturally, the people of SWLA are humble and grateful for what they have and celebrate life through their music.
Mardi Gras IS a big deal in SWLA. For several days before Fat Tuesday, people will wish friends, family and complete strangers a hardy greeting of "Happy Mardi Gras" with a big smile on their face. It is a major holiday for them and businesses shut down so that all may celebrate Fat Tuesday. It is the final day of mischievous fun before the religious seriousness of the Lenten season.
Most communities continue to celebrate with parades and street dances. Combining ancient religious rites and customs and fitting them into today's societal values, the towns of St. Landry Parish host traditional styled parades through the country side complete with street begging, chicken runs and a community gumbo. The raggedy costuming with screen masks and capuchins are mandatory to participate in a run but both participants and spectators proudly display their deeply felt culture in this way. Cajun music, which remains a fundamental element of any Cajun celebration, adds to the joyful energy of camaraderie.
As the parade of horses and floats come into town, spectators line the streets to cheer the run participants on and will beg by shouting "throw me something, mister". Others might point wordlessly to their palm hoping to be rewarded with a coin. While those on the run happily reward the begging by throwing thousands of strings of Mardi Gras beads. Kids and adults can be seen adorned with lots of beads around their necks or some will collect them in bags. The number of beads collected measures the success of their day.
Today, times are tough in SWLA as they are throughout the US and the world but the Mardi Gras celebrations are as BIG as life itself here and the music leads the revelry. The Cajun culture remains vibrant while these traditions celebrate a way of life from the past the provide direction for the future.