Boudreaux’s been much on my mind of late.
In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens in art and literature, he emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want the complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for a real Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”
As proof, he sent along Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching the hour-long film with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.
A year later, and the year after that, I remembered Boudreaux’s email only after it was too late to make plans. Each year, I watched the film again and thought,”Next year.”
This year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. After a few phone calls, a conversation or two, and a text, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called a friend who lives in Louisiana’s bayou country and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting.”
Traditionally, the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras run, is held on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. It did seem curious that Church Point would choose Sunday for their celebration, so I looked into the event’s history.
As it turns out, Elton Richard formally organized the Church Point Courir in 1961. Some time later, he and Senator Paul Tate of Mamou concluded that each town needed its own celebration. In order to decide which town would celebrate on Tuesday, and which on Sunday, they used a time-honored method: the coin toss. After the toss, the calendar was set. Mamou now holds its Courir on Mardi Gras day, while Church Point events take place on Sunday.
As we made our way toward Church Point early Sunday morning, the combination of dense fog and deserted roads lent an air of unexpected serenity to the scene. No crowds thronged the route, no music drifted through the air. Only occasional groups of horses and riders, a cluster of horse trailers, or the drooping gold, green and purple of a Mardi Gras flag served to suggest festivities yet to come.
Still, as we pulled into the drive and greeted our host, it became apparent that people had been up and about for some time. A few had gone into town for last-minute errands before road closures. Children were everywhere, amusing themselves with scooters, tricycles and a trampoline.
The fragrance of a good hen and sausage gumbo filled the air, watched over by a man who clearly knew his way around an outdoor kitchen.
In time, neigbors passed by for a visit…
…and a burst of color appeared through the fog, as a traditionally-clad Mardi gras reveler headed for the beer fridge.
Mardi Gras costumes, fashioned of colorful fabrics and fabric fringe, include a tall, conical hat called a capuchon, and a mask. The homemade masks, traditionally constructed of wire screen, often sport beards, eyebrows and exaggerated features.
Lucius Fontenot, a founder of Valcour Records, says,“The costumes are similar to those of the Mardi Gras in old France. They were a way of making fun of the aristocracy, and the frilly way they dressed at court. Because [the revelers] were peasants, all the costumes were homemade out of scraps.”
Larry Miller, a retired acordian maker from Iota, agrees. “It’s the Mardi Gras of peasants,” he says, “while New Orleans has the Mardi Gras of royalty. The traditions came over at different times, and in different ships.”
Unlike the costumed Mardi Gras (when plural and pronouned “grahz,” the phrase refers to participants in the Courir), Le Capitaine and his co-Capitaines ride unmasked.
The Capitaine “typically is a strong figure of the community — a Sheriff or deputy– and his job is to keep everyone in line,” says Fontenot. “When the Mardi Gras approach the house, the Capitaine approaches the home first, and alone. When the neighbor says it’s okay for the group to approach, the Capitaine waves his flag, and the traditional Mardi Gras song is sung.”
The Capitaines not only maintain order and discipline among the Mardi Gras, wielding a mostly-symbolic whip of braided burlap as needed, they also serve as a liason between the Mardi Gras and the public. There’s no question they can be imposing figures, particularly at first sight.
While a Mardi Gras run may seem chaotic, each Courir has its own rules: a code of behavior for participants. Meetings are held during the year, both to learn the rituals and songs and to appreciate the importance of discipline. During the Courir, runners as well as Capitaines monitor one another to ensure safety, if not total sobriety. The list of rules for the Church Point Courir is instructive. The emphases are theirs.
Cajun Mardi Gras Tradition requires MEN ONLY on the Mardi Gras Run.
NO GLASS Containers Allowed. You will be asked to leave if caught with Glass Containers.
NO WEAPONS. You will be subject to A Search at any time during the Run.
No Fighting. YOU WILL GO TO JAIL.
No Doubling on Horses.
You Must Stay on Public Roads Until Permission is Given to Go Onto Private Property.
Disobeying the Captain, Co-Captains and Law Officers will Result in being ejected from the Run. No Refunds!
Anyone under 15 years of Age must be accompanied by a Responsible Adult.
Everyone is Required to be Fully Masked [or painted face] and in Costume.
Anyone URINATING in Public will be subject to Arrest. Port-A-Lets are provided.
No PROFANITY or Indecent Exposure will be Tolerated. YOU WILL GO TO JAIL IF CAUGHT.
Anyone Seeming to be Out of Control or TOO Intoxicated will be removed from the Run and Contained.
The Capitaines also help with chicken control. As the runners collect one of the prime ingredients for their gumbo, the chickens are added to a traveling pen, recorded, and well guarded. Thievery seems unlikely, but on a day devoted to pranks, anything might be possible.
All of this is fine, of course. but the question remains: once you have costumes, chickens, Capitaines and the rest of the crew all in one place, what happens next? Wilson Savoy, a member of the Pine Leaf Boys, describes it this way:
The runners go from house to house and ask permission to enter the yard of the home owner. They dance and entertain the owners and in exchange they ask for anything to contribute to the run, usually ingredients to make a gumbo at the end of the day: rice, chickens, sausage, flour.
If a homeowner donates a chicken, tradition dictates that the chicken be alive. That’s where the fun begins. Before the chicken can become a part of the community’s gros gumbo, it has to be caught. Words can’t properly describe what happens next, so I found a little something to help.
After the chickens have been caught, and the Courir moves on to the next home, the fun isn’t over. Following along behind are the Krewes, with their music, art, beer, bead-tossing and invitations to dance. (Did I mention beer?) One of my new favorite songs is “Eunice Mardi Gras,” by Jamie Bergeron and the Kickin’ Cajuns. Have a listen, while you enjoy the photos.
For those needing a rest from their dancing or bead-collecting, artwork on the passing parade of buses and wagons offered some delightful interpretations of the day’s primary actors.
Performance art wasn’t neglected. This live chicken (whose black friend seems to have escaped for the moment) rode quite happily atop the LSU bus. Snapping its tether at one point, it was coaxed back and re-attached, apparently unruffled.
Some of my favorite towns collaborated on this tribute to the area’s history and agricultural heritage. I’ve been to every town except Iota. Next year.
…and I cackled right back.
In time, riders and wagons supplanted masked and costumed revelers. The slower pace allowed increasing interaction between spectators and participants, as well as time to appreciate the passing horses, donkeys, and the singular-in-every-sense zeedonk.
Occasional pauses in the parade’s forward progress also allowed time for kid-and-horse conversation. Only moments after taking this photo, I watched the little blond girl move over to offer the white horse the attention he clearly craved.
Even the smallest — and most ambivalent — got to experience the excitement of the ride.
As the last group of horses passed by and children began clearing the ditches of unclaimed beads, we settled in with our gumbo to reflect. Remarkably, there was no sense of disappointment at the parade’s end: no let-down, no sense that something had been lost.
That lack of disappointment surely witnesses to the power of the Courir as living tradition. Neither spectacle nor ritual re-enactment, neither a Cajun version of New Orleans celebrations nor a poor, rural imitation of city ways, the Courir embodies customs cherished by Acadian settlers and their descendents for centuries.
While its value as sheer entertainment can’t be denied, its greater importance lies in the opportunity it offers for affirming enduring ties of family and tradition. Parades may end, but heritage is forever.
Today, the masked and costumed riders are gone. The beads have been cleared from the roads, and chickens once again forage in peace. Music still echoes through Acadiana while gumbo pots boil, but the extravagance and excess of Mardi Gras slowly are giving way to other necessities of life.
Still, if the parties and parades of the season have gone, the beauty of the Courir remains: a flag of tradition, civility, and commitment to community that waves for us all.