Where Les Bons Temps Still Rouler

Le Capitaine and his Chicken
In Eunice and Mamou, in Crowley and Church Point, the 2022 Courir de Mardi Gras will be continuing a beloved tradition. I’d hoped to make a run to Louisiana for a taste of this year’s fun, but the stars didn’t align. So, I’ll have some Texas gumbo, enjoy some Cajun music, and share this post once again: for my own pleasure, and I hope for yours.

Some years ago, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens, a friend from Louisiana emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want chickens? Come to Cajun country for Mardi Gras. We dance for chickens here.”

As proof, he sent the trailer for Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. I watched with a certain degree of astonishment, tucked the link into my bookmarks, and resolved someday to witness the improbable celebrations.

Occasionally I remembered the email, but only after it was too late to make plans. One year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. A few phone calls later, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called another Louisiana friend and said, “Pack your bags. The chickens are waiting.”

Traditionally, Courir de Mardi Gras is held on Fat Tuesday, but Church Point holds their celebration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Organized by Elton Richard in 1961, it’s a great example of a traditional, rural Mardi Gras. New Orleans celebrates in her own way, but in Cajun country, things are different.

As my friend and I traveled toward Church Point, 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 horses and riders, a cluster of horse trailers, or the drooping gold, green, and purple Mardi Gras flags suggested the festivities yet to come.

The View from an Outdoor Kitchen

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 to complete last-minute errands before road closures, and 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 accordian maker from Iota, agrees.

It’s the Mardi Gras of peasants, while New Orleans has the Mardi Gras of royalty. The traditions came over at different times, and in different ships.

Unlike costumed Mardi Gras (when plural and pronouned “grahz,” the phrase refers to participants in the Courir), Le Capitaine and his co-Capitaines ride unmasked. According to Fontenot:

The Capitaine typically is a strong figure of the community — a Sheriff or deputy– and his job is to keep everyone in line. 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.”

La Danse de Mardi Gras ~ Balfa Brothers recording c. 1964
Les Mardi Gras ça vient de tout partout
Tout l’autour au tour du moyeu
Ça passe un fois par ans

Demander la charité
Quand même si c’est une patate
Une patate et des gratins
Les Mardi Gras sont su’ un grand voyage
Tout l’tour autour du moyeu
Ça passe un fois par ans
Demander la charité
Quand même si c’est une poule maigre
Et trois, quatre coton d’maïs
Capitain, capitain voyage ton flag
Allons su’ l’autr’ voisin
Demander la charité
Pour eux autr’ venir nous r’joindre
Eux autr’ venir nous r’joindre
Ouais au bal pour ce soir
The Mardi Gras come from all around,
all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a sweet potato, a sweet potato or pork rinds.
The Mardi Gras are on a great journey,
all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.
Captain, captain, wave your flag,
let’s go to another neighbor’s.

Asking for charity for everyone who’ll come join us later,
Everyone who’ll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!

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. They’re imposing figures, particularly at first sight.

While a Mardi Gras run may seem chaotic, each Courir has its own code of conduct. Meetings held during the year teach the rituals and songs, but also emphasize the importance of discipline. During the Courir, runners as well as Capitaines monitor one another to ensure safety, if not sobriety. This partial list of rules for the Church Point Courir is instructive (emphases theirs):

Cajun Mardi Gras Tradition requires MEN ONLY on the Mardi Gras Run.
NO GLASS Containers or ice chest allowed. You will be asked to leave if caught with these items.
NO WEAPONS. You will be subject to A Search at any time during the Run.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, Sir

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 is possible.

Once the costumes, chickens, Capitaines, and the rest of the crew are gathered into one place, tradition takes over. 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 behind are the Krewes with their music, art, beer, bead-tossing, and invitations to dance (did I mention beer?). The version of “La Danse de Mardi Gras” popularized by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is as danceable on a dirt road as at a dancehall or festival.

  Allons Danser!
No need to put down a drink..
Wouldn’t you grin if this fellow put some beads around your neck?

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.

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, children began clearing the ditches of unclaimed beads and we settled in with our gumbo. 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.

Soon, this year’s masked and costumed riders will be gone. The beads will have been cleared from the roads, and chickens will forage in peace. Music always will echo through Acadiana while gumbo pots boil, but the extravagance and excess of Mardi Gras slowly will give way to other necessities of life.

Still, once the parties and parades of the season have gone, the beauty of the Courir will remain: a flag of tradition, civility, and commitment to community that waves for us all.

Comments always are welcome.

66 thoughts on “Where Les Bons Temps Still Rouler

  1. Sorry you didn’t get to go this year. The last time you posted this I commented on the etymology of carnival. This time I’ll point out that the year you mentioned in connection with the Church Point Courir de Mardi Gras, 1961, was our most recent 180° year—by which I mean that if you take the numeral 1961 and rotate it 180°, you get back 1961. I remember when Mad Magazine celebrated that on its cover. I don’t think we’ll be around to see the next such year, 6009.

    1. You’ve been doing a good bit of rotating recently! I don’t remember that Mad Magazine cover, but I well remember Mad Magazine. It was smart as well as funny, and always worth checking out. Of course, I was reading it during a time when parody and satire didn’t leave everyone shocked and quivering, and people still were willing to laugh at themselves. Good times.

      1. If I’ve been doing a good bit of rotating recently it’s because so much in our world is getting turned topsy turvy. I read Mad from 6th grade into high school. The magazine ceased publication a few years ago, by which time actual events were increasingly making the magazine’s title too realistic. Even so, I’ve been publishing a few short satires of my own. There’s no shortage of material to parody.

  2. I loved reading this (and listening to the great music) Linda, as well as learning about this tradition I’ve never heard about. Community and tradition runs strong, and it looks much more fun than New Orleans’ drunken revelry. Cajun music is wonderful!

    1. Galveston’s Mardi Gras is a bit more subdued than New Orleans’ celebrations, but I still prefer the Courir. For one thing, they’ve resisted commercialization, and the festivities are a way to cement ties within local communities. Not that they’re closed; Cajuns are friendly and welcoming. If I were forced to choose a place to live other than Texas, I’d head straight to Cajun Louisiana, where there’s good food, good music, and good people.

    1. Allons danser isn’t only an invitation to the dance; it’s also the title of the first song I danced to in Louisiana. The song “Allons Danser” was written by Canray Fontenot, a legendary Creole fiddler; Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys do it right.

    1. As the saying goes, you can pass a good time in Louisiana, and these traditions provide some of the best times ever. Strangely, it was Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” that sent me to Louisiana for the first time. One of these days I’m going to begin putting together the series of sketched-out posts I think of as the Evangeline Chronicles.

  3. I was listening to Chopin’s late works whilst blog reading, which I paused to listen to the Mardi Gras songs you featured here. If music had an Immelmann maneuver, that would be it. Still, Chopin was half French, so not too far out of the ballpark.

    1. Variety, spice, and all that. I had to look up the Immelmann maneuver, but once I did, I thought it a perfect description of that kind of musical change-up. I didn’t know that Chopin was half-French, but I suspect even if he didn’t have a lick of French in him he would have enjoyed the music. There’s just something about it that’s energizing in a wholly positive way; at least, that’s how it affects me.

    1. Both of those videos are fascinating, Lisa. Of course I didn’t have a clue what I was watching, but I couldn’t stop watching. The costumes are wonderful; I couldn’t help seeing llamas in the men’s pants! The most interesting ‘echo’ I heard in the music was “El Condor Pasa”. I suppose it was the rhythms and the flute. You’re right about the energy level, and the obvious enjoyment. I think the Ecuadorans and the Cajuns would meld beautifully, and get quite a kick out of one another’s traditions.

  4. A splendid post on a delightful tradition. It is good to see somewhere allowing no weapons. Your picture of the little blonde girl and the white horse with its caption is so well spotted.

    1. Of course you noticed the girl and the horse! That’s such a charming image — especially of the horse. The Courir is a tradition that’s family centred as well as community centered, and people work hard to keep it that way. It’s never been commercialized, either. While New Orleans gets the publicity, these people have real fun.

    1. For someone who loves color as much as you do, it would be quite a delight. Purple, gold, and green are the traditional Mardi Gras colors, but no one limits themselves to those — as you can tell from the photos. Stir in great food, wonderful music, and a bunch of wide-eyed kids, and it’s one of those events that tend to stick in the mind — and the heart.

  5. Fantastic post. Too bad you didn’t get to go, but doesn’t it make you feel good to know that some traditions are still being held?!

    1. What makes me happy is that so many of these traditions continue on without promotion by the media, etc. My sense was that the folks ‘down da bayou’ don’t care one whit what the big city folks think of them; they’re going to maintain their traditions for their own pleasure. Even better, the younger generations are interested, and doing their part to recover the language and some of the skills.

  6. There is something special about celebrating Mardi Gras in a purely rural setting. I must regretfully state that such outdoor frolicking would not be possible here in the Interior BC, where the temperature hovers around -10 degrees right now. Thank you, Linda, for this interesting post on French Carnival traditions in the deep south of the USA!

    1. Beyond all the obvious pleasures, there were some unexpected side benefits: no traffic jams, no drunks (at least none that I saw), and plenty of opportunity for real conversation. I experienced a few ‘firsts,’ too — like potato salad (minus pickles and eggs) in the gumbo. That really surprised me, but it was quite good: cooling the spiciness of the gumbo in the same way that yogurt can cool Indian curries. I love new experiences that can be replicated at home!

    1. It was so nice to see the children involved in all of the festivities. And even though I passed over it with just a line, it was wonderful to see “children [begin] clearing the ditches of unclaimed beads” after the parade. They weren’t doing it only because they wanted more beads, they knew it was time to start cleaning things up, and that’s what they did. No one had to tell them to get to work; they did it on their own, just as they helped with the cooking and serving — and amused themselves even without ‘devices’ in their hands.

  7. I’m sorry you had to forego the big party this year, but there’s always next year! I’ve never been to New Orleans for all the Mardi Gras revelry, but cities along the Mississippi Coast have their own parades and traditions (of which I’m more familiar). Thanks for explaining the Church Point traditions — most entertaining, and I got a kick out of the videos!

    1. It occurred to me that I’d never read anything about the celebrations on the Mississippi coast, so I did a little browsing. I found this great article about recycling Mardi Gras beads at the Mississippi Aquarium. It’s a terrific idea. I’m not aware of excess beads being a problem around here, but I stay away from the big parades where I’m sure there are plenty of throws left in the streets — and elsewhere!

  8. I had no idea that there was a rural version of Mardis Gras celebrations, and I think I would much rather take part in those. They look every bit as fun, but also a bit more civilized. Thanks for this informative post!

    1. I’d never heard of it until I started visiting Louisiana more frequently. I don’t think I ever read about it in the Houston area media; they always focused on New Orleans, or Galveston. I thought it was wonderful fun — and there was less traffic, which certainly is a plus. Beyond that, being able to visit a family in their home allowed for a good bit of interesting conversation. The memories are all good.

    1. I’ve been hoping the weather would clear — and warm a bit — for this year’s festivities, and it seems that will happen. There’s so much effort put into the preparation; it’s nice to think of them having a chance to really enjoy the event. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, too. It’s another of those ‘hidden bits’ of American culture, and so interesting.

  9. A traditional, rural Mardi Gras! I didn’t know such things happened. I’ve been to the royal Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but never elsewhere. Good that there are some rules involved in each particular festival, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the chickens. I know how a woman gets beads in the royal festival, same in the rural ones?

    1. Who knows? Maybe among the chickens being selected for a Courir gumbo is considered a high honor! Or, it might just be bad luck. Either way, the dish tastes just as good.

      No, that ‘traditional way’ of getting beads in NOLA has no place at the Courir: at least, in my limited experience. Everyone gets beads: men, women, children, horses, babies. I don’t think in that generally family-friendly atmosphere mom or grandma would bare all. The Courir I attended felt more like a combination of a homecoming weekend and a family reunion, rather than the drunken orgies that pop up in NOLA.

        1. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay apparently felt as we do when she wrote this:

          “My heart is warm with the friends I make,
          And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
          Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
          No matter where it’s going.”

  10. It’s so good to see a community getting together to celebrate and have fun – something I should think we’ve all really missed during the last couple of years. Hope we can make up for it this year!

    1. The Courirs never stopped, even during the pandemic. There were some adjustments to the celebrations, but les bons temps rolled right on. To be honest, life went on as usual in a lot of places last year. It’s just that some were smart enough to keep a low profile while they continued to live their lives. Living life beats arguing about how to live life, every time!

  11. Traditional family fun is at its best for those who will keep a lid on the bottle. Doesn’t seem to be much of a problem measured against other parties of this size. So roll it on. Your pictures are a glimpse into the importance of color for this occasion.

    1. I didn’t grow up with Mardi Gras celebrations. Our focus was on Shrove Tuesday — the day before Lent’s beginning, when pancakes were the order of the day. The point was to use up the butter and sugar before the austerity of Lent, and somehow it became the practice for church youth groups to host pancake suppers for the congregation. It was fun, but I’ll have to admit I find the Courir even more fun. On the other hand, I could sprinkle our pancakes with green, gold, and purple sugars!

  12. The human race needs more dancing in the street, beer, silliness, gumbo and chicken runs.

    My chicken chasing days may be over but after listening to a bit of Cajun music my feet will be tapping all the way to the store for what’s needed to make gumbo. There will be good eating this week.

    Thank you for another uplifting post! We peasants appreciate it.

    1. As we moved into the weekend, a podcaster I listen to had this advice: “Get out in the fresh air and do something — anything. Despite world events, don’t spend the weekend ‘doom-scrolling.'” That’s good advice, and I’d say these folks know how to put it into practice. Given the levels of irrationality and horror abroad in the world just now, some gumbo and bead throwing seem appropriate, if temporary releases, from other, more pressing concerns. Besides, to paraphrase an old phrase, the community that plays together, stays together, and a little stability always is worth celebrating.

  13. Whew, this probably took you many hours of writing and selecting photos. I doubt I will ever attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans, so I enjoyed learning about some of your impressions.

    I grew up in an area in Germany that starts to celebrate “Karneval” in November! As a child I loved to dress in costumes and attend parades, but nowadays, the mere idea of large crowds makes me uncomfortable.

    1. That’s so interesting, that you had a ‘Karneval’ in November. It must have been associated with something other than the beginning of Lent; otherwise, it would have been a very long party, indeed.
      Like you, I’m not so fond of big crowds. In fact, the last time I attended Galveston’s Mardi Gras, we left an afternoon musical performance inside the crowded ‘quarter’ because of the crowd. It was clear that if anything went wrong, being trampled would be a real possibility. Even on an ordinary day, I much prefer to wander in nature by myself rather than with a group. There are exceptions, such as field trips with a knowledgeable guide, of course.

      1. The “Karneval” season officially started on 11/11 at 11:11 o’clock (when it was customary for women to cut off men’s ties, by the way–Freud would likely have something to say about that!), but most of the festivities took place in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.
        I’m with you and would take a day spent in nature any time over time spent caught in the middle of crowds.

    1. I thought Texans knew how to party, until I went to Louisiana! Of course, over there, life itself is a bit of a party — at least, when there’s not a hurricane or such to contend with!

  14. What a great article. Thank you for taking me to Louisiana and introducing me to this simple and engaging event. It’s nice to see cheerful people in these times. And thank you for making me forget for a few minutes the sad dramatic times we are living through.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Taking world events seriously is important, but obsessing over what we cannot affect directly isn’t healthy — or helpful to those who are suffering. Maintaining traditions, nurturing relationships, and enjoying the best of what our cultures have to offer help to keep us human, and the world certainly needs a huge dose of human love and compassion just now.

    1. That’s right, and shared traditions help to keep a society intact and interesting. In 1950s and 1960s Iowa — often portrayed as a sea of blandness and uniformity — we participated in Mesqwakie Pow-wows, Dutch tulip festivals, Czech polka fests, and Italian saints’ days celebrations. Everyone was welcomed, just as the Cajuns welcome ‘outsiders’ to their parties. It takes about ten minutes to lose that outsider status, and discover your inner Cajun!

  15. Did this ever bring back great memories. I think everyone should take in Mardi Gras in Louisiana just once in their lives. I did a few times – in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Slidell. But as years passed on, my husband’s people were older and more into celebrating in someone’s back yard in Covington with plenty of music, good food, barking hound dogs, lots of beer and occasionally the passing of a bottle of Old Crow. The best part were the stories – Uncle Jewel was a Captain (CAP in) of da St. Tammany (Tamnee) parrish, and deh be plenty uh stories of arrests and antics, and gettin inta all kind uh trouble.

    It always took me two good days to get the lingo down. We did a lot of fishing on Pontchartrain. And, I should add, I always gained at least ten pounds after a week of good eating. Those trips were some of the best times of my life. I loved those happy people. Thanks for stirring up a lot of great memories!

    1. Your description of the back yard celebrations reminded me of a joke I was told in Louisiana, by a Cajun. Do you know how to spot the Cajun house in the neighborhood? It’s the one where the boat’s in the garage and the car’s parked on the driveway.

      I’ve always had a bit of trouble attuning my ear to a thick Cajun accent. When I began sailing, I soon discovered plenty of the barge captains plying the intracoastal were Cajun, and it was important to be able to figure out what they were saying. It might be easier now, since there are so many youtube videos that offer a chance to hear the language. Some of the universities in Louisiana are offering classes in Cajun French, and it’s fun to listen to interviews students do with some of the older residents. Best of all is spending time in Louisiana, of course. I’d sure love to do a bit more of that this year. I know a lot has changed in the past decade for a variety of reasons, but the people are the same.

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