Wild costumes, elaborate floats, and lavish parties are all part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, but in Cajun country of southwest Louisiana, the celebrations are quite different.
Hints of this difference appeared in the costumes worn by a handful of Mardi Gras participants early in the day.
More than a dozen south Louisiana prarie Cajun and Creole communities celebrate Fat Tuesday with a traditional courir de Mardi Gras, a day of unbridled festivity before the restraint of Lent.
Many of the customs associated with the Cajun country Mardi Gras can be traced back to ancient European rituals, passed down for generations through many cultures and brought to southwest Louisiana by early French and Acadian settlers.
Like all living traditions, the rural Mardi Gras has changed over time, but the ritual celebration retains much of its old character, symbolism and significance.
In commu-nities of Mamou, Eunice, Church Point and others, the day still begins with masked and costumed revelers riding on horseback or in trucks from house to house, begging gifts of food or money in exchange for performances of singing and dancing.
As always, it ends with the triumphant return of the Mardi Gras to town and the community gathering to share a day's bounty in a gros gumbo and dance which ends promptly at Midnight, the beginning of Ash Wednesday.
The Tee Mamou-Iota courir de Mardi Gras is one of few which has survived through the years without a break in continuity. This strong link with tradition and community conviction to its maintenance, combined with local innovation, make the Tee Mamou-Iota run a unique and fascinating event.
Once run on foot and later on horseback, the Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras began to use trucks in the 1940's.
All who run the Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras must wear traditional handmade costumes and masks. The Mardi Gras suits fashioned of colorful or motley fabric and fringe are topped by the tall, coneshaped hat called a capuchon which dates back to medieval times and symbolizes a mockery of the nobility. Homemade masks, traditionally constructed of wire screen, are creatively elaborated with beards, eyebrows and exaggerated features. In recent years, embroidered plastic mesh has also been employed as an innovation in the art of mask making. The capataine and his co-captains remain undisguised. They maintain discipline among the Mardi Gras and act as the liason between the Mardi Gras and the public. Each captain carries a distinctive whip of braided burlap, which is often used generously to keep unruly Mardi Gras in check.
On the surface, the behaviour of the Mardi Gras often seems to approach chaos. In reality, there is a very strong system of rules which underlies and controls the ritual. All Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras must learn these rules as well as the song at mandatory organiza-tional meetings. Although everyone involved realizes that some rules are meant to be bent, part of being a successful runner is knowing the limits. During the run, Mardi Gras as well as captains moniter each other to ensure that the event does not get out of control.
A good Mardi Gras stretches pre-conceived notions of accepted behaviour to the limit. The runners are not shy about begging, an important feature of the event. The ages-old beggar's gesture of pointing to an extended cupped palm is frequently seen (see the person on the right with outstretched hands).
The usual request if for a few coins, but paper money is also accepted (as shown in the photo) by today's revelers.
The highlight of the day is the arrival of the Tee Mamou Courir de Mardi Gras on the main stage along with the capitaine to sing their traditional European chant in French that is dated back 400 years. Once the song is completed, the Mardi Gras descend onto the street like a colorful wave, dancing with any available ladies(iotamardigras.com).
Children are very much a part of the day's festivities. Yesterday's entry noted the focus on young musicians and the photos shown here were taken during the children's procession to the stage for a special program of recognition. In both cases the Cajun culture and traditions are preserved through the involvement of the children.
In the community of Iota, we could one see traditions preserved by a small group of Cajuns who are determined to relive a part of their heritage each year.