European Roots of Cajun & Creole Mardi Gras

Although they are different in many ways, Cajun and Creole Courir de Mardi Gras and New Orleans-style parades share the same European roots. Learn about the origins of these traditions in this explanation provided by Larry Miller.

End-of-Winter Parties in Europe

Before there were centralized governments in France and other European nations, each kingdom area was ruled by the King and his wealthy local supporters. It was somewhat common for kings to sponsor end-of-winter parties. All of the wealthy subjects, professors, and local Catholic hierarchy were invited. This end-of-winter party was not yet called Mardi Gras.

The kingdoms of France had variations of the following customs at these end-of-winter parties. The King usually furnished a special entrée, like a roasted pig, while all the wealthy folks brought a covered dish and bottles of wine. The wealthy folks were seated in an arena. All of the women wore tall conical hats, called capuchons, which were the women’s fashion of the 15th century.

By Hugo van der Goes - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,
Medieval woman wearing a capuchon

Early Parades

A procession into the arena was led by the Bishops, Cardinals, and other Catholic clergy wearing their miter hats and best vestments. Following them were the professors wearing their mortar board caps and gowns. The last group sometimes consisted of a few chosen wealthy couples where by the men threw real coins while their wives threw valuable bracelets, necklaces, and other forms of souvenirs. It is easy to conclude that the origins of the throwing doubloons and beads during the Mardi Gras celebrations of the wealthy came from the early parties.

Medieval Banquet by Mountain Dreams. Free public domain CC0 photo.

La Charité

Our common folk ancestors, who would eventually become Acadians and Cajuns, were not allowed at these parties. The common folks, who were mainly day-by-day laborers, were always short of food from the long winters. They were aware that the day before these parties, the wealthy subjects were preparing their dishes and wine to bring to the party. Our ancestors learned that by dressing up in crude makeshift costumes, going from wealthy house to house, and putting on a show, they could garner food. They would disguise their voices while asking for la charité in hope to receive food items and maybe even the worst bottle of wine from the cellar.

They frequently would make their own capuchons, professors’ mortar hats, and even Cardinal and Bishops’ miter hats in a friendly mockery as part of their costumes. All of this was done with whatever cloth they could find, regardless of the colors. They were dressing up as somebody they were not in a friendly but comical jab of class envy. Their entertainment usually encouraged the home-owners to be generous.

This mode of “reverse dressing” or “cross dressing” of gender, religious status, skin color and class distinction is still carried out in the current Cajun and Creole Mardi Gras Country traditions.

Mardi Gras Capuchon, photo by David Simpson.

Le Courir de Mardi Gras

These common folks would gather in groups, typically on foot as they had no horses. They would run from house to house in order to cover more homes to get more food and drink. Hence the term going on a “run” was created, or courir in French. It was many years later when our ancestors became more religious and would not party during Lent. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday became known as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. So, the term Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run, emerged.

Several cultural traditions have survived within our Cajun Mardi Gras of western Acadia. Singing a song in French as they ran from house to house had been very common up to about 1940 throughout Southwest Louisiana. Very few still sing the ancient song in French on their run, except for three groups in Western Acadia who sing in French. These groups are the Tee-Mamou Iota, Lejeune Cove, and Mermentau Cove.  Cross dressing still permeates costuming traditions.

Two other rare traditions have survived in these area celebrations. Second is the 15th century tradition of begging for la charité with one hand extended, cupped, while using the index finger of the other hand pointing into the cupped hand and asking for something.

Lejeune Cove Mardi Gras, photo by David Simpson

Third, but rarer, is the 14th century tradition of “dead man revived” which comes from the Feast of Fools celebration. This is where a Mardi Gras pretends to collapse and die. His fellow Mardi Gras will attempt various funny resuscitation procedures, all of which fail. Then upon pouring a drink through the mask into his face, he immediately jumps up and runs wild, showing that he is revived and newly energized. Today, the only group still carrying on this ancient tradition is the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras playing dead, photo by David Simpson

Our Acadian, Cajun, and Creole ancestors brought the French common folks’ Mardi Gras traditions with them to Louisiana in the mid 1700s. The big cities such as New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama imported the Mardi Gras traditions of the wealthy from France, with some influence from Italy, in the very early 1800s. Today’s wealthy Mardi Gras celebrations still feature theme colors, silky looking costumes, expensive King & Queen’s balls and gala parades. During their parades, participants can be seen throwing colored plastic coins and simulated necklaces as a show of wealth.

Thank you, Mr. Larry Miller, for sharing this history with us! Read more about Acadia Parish accordion-maker Larry Miller here.