4:25 a.m., March 5. I was awake five minutes before the alarm was set to go off.
During the next five minutes, I reviewed the recom-mendation we had received from one of the women at the Visitor Information Center in Crowley, LA.
"We want to attend the Courir de Mardi Gras in Church Point. What information do you have about that event?" was our opening question.
As she reached for a map of Church Point, her enthusiasm rose. "Wonderful. Let me show you where you want to be." With her magic marker, she drew a circle at a point and said, "This is the staging area (The Saddle Tramp Riding Club), so you want to park just off of Henry. There's a warehouse parking lot there, but you have to be there before 7:00. After 7, the lot will be full and the street will be blocked off."
It was her advice (or warning) to be there by 7:00 that kept going through my mind. To attend a courir on this visit to Cajun Country had been our primary objective. So even though the parade wasn't scheduled to begin until 1:00, we knew we had to be there by 7:00 for the traditional "run" that was scheduled to begin at 8:00.
4:30 a.m. The alarm went off and we were up.
6:35 a.m. We had made the 15-mile drive to Church Point and found ourselves virtually alone in the recommended warehouse parking area. We began a row along one side of the border and waited.
By 7:00, the lot was filled with cars, trucks, horse trailers, and trucks bringing supplies to the floats. We were feeling like veteran courir watchers.
To go back a few weeks, we had wanted to attend a traditional Mardi Gras celebration that was practiced in the rural towns of Acadia Parish (in Cajun Country west of Lafayette).
"The first Acadians brought 'Le Courir de Mardi Gras' or the 'Running of the Mardi Gras' to French Louisiana when they immigrated to the area in the 1750's.
"The rural Mardi Gras celebration is based on early begging rituals, similar to those still celebrated by mummers, wassailers and celebrants of Halloween. As Mardi Gras is the celebration of the final day before Lent, celebrants drink and eat heavily, and also dress in specialized costumes, ostensibly to protect their identities. Popular practices include wearing masks, capuchons (cone-shaped ceremonial hats), and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, drinking alcohol, begging, and feasting.
"Many of the traditional costumes are derivatives of the costumes worn in early rural France during the same celebration. The costumes directly mock the nobility, the clergy and the educated; celebrants wear miter hats, mortarboards and capuchons, which were initially designed to mock the tall pointy hats worn by noble women.
"These hats are still worn, primarily by men and are vibrantly decorated to match (or intentionally mis-match) the colorful Mardi Gras costumes that they accompany. They are often worn with a mask.
"The shirts and pants of the costume are made by sewing together various pieces of cloth in a patchwork style. The strips of cloth are cut into fringing, and are sewn onto the sleeves, up and down the legs, and on the capuchon. The end effect is a riot of color and pattern. These costumes are also believed to have originated in Medieval times.
"The masks are made by taking ordinary wire mesh window screen and painting on features such as eyes and mouths. The masks are almost see through, but usually not enough to discern the wearer's identity.
Many masks include large protruding noses and the costumes include animal features like beaks, feathers, hair, fur or tails.
"In Church Point the rural Mardi Gras is basically the same as it was in the old days of the early settlers. In 1961, Elton Richard formally organized the event, which until then had been individual, independent groups of riders. The Church Point courir is held on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, a conse-quence of the formal organization in 1961. Elton Richard and Senator Paul Tate of Mamou flipped a coin to see who would have their official courir on Mardi Gras Day. Mamou won and as a result the Church Point Mardi Gras is on Sunday" (Church Point webpage and wikipedia).
It was not long after dawn, as we walked around the staging area for the courir, that we noticed an unusual "attachment" to many of the costumes--one arm seemed to be molded into a right angle at the elbow with a beverage holder at the end.
We were also struck by the number of young people who were parti-cipating in this traditional celebration. The importance of the Mardi Gras celebrations in the lives of the Acadians was apparent in conversations with adults, but it is the participation of young adults that insures the continuation of the cultural practices.
But all of these scenes have merely been setting the stage for the courir, which was late in getting started.
The role of the participants shown in these last two photos will be elaborated upon tomorrow.