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Mardi Gras
A Study of the French Louisiana Tradition

Jarred James Breaux

Many associate Mardi Gras as a time of binge drinking and titty flashing in New Orleans. However, for the majority of the world, that cannot be further from the truth. Mardi Gras is often popularized as the elite of society on floats in grand parades throwing doubloons and beads, but that is now how Mardi Gras originated.

In ancient Rome, they celebrated the festival of Lupercalia around February 15th. Lupercalia was a festival for the pastoral god Lupercus who is associated with Faunus. At this festival, people would feast for several days and “indulge in voluntary madness.” They would wear clothing similar to that of the rich aristocrats and parade through the streets giving themselves to Bacchus and Venus. Their clothing was often purple, the color of kings, which was very expensive since the dye was made in Phoenicia (which is Greek for “land of the purple people”).

In another holiday just before Lupercalia, people gave praise to the god Saturn. Followers of Saturn decorated their homes with all types of greenery. Ornaments with sun faces, stars, and the faces of Janus would be placed on outside plants.

When Europe became primarily Christian, the Pope in Rome decided to embrace the Lupercalia festival as Carnival. Carnival would be a time of indulgence before the Lent season, a time of fasting. The Carnival season begins on epiphany, the twelfth night after Jesus’ birth, January 6th. They combined the rituals of the two pagan festivals eventually. Carnival continued as a time for the poor to make fun of the rich by mimicking and mocking their behavior.

By the Colonial Era, Carnival was widely celebrated in Paris, France, mainly on the two days before Ash Wednesday. Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was a time of huge parades of commoners mimicking the rich and redistributing the wealth of the country. Commoners would steal food and drink from the rich and feast in front of them. The rich were powerless to do anything as this had become tradition.

Around that time, as the French were exploring the Americas, Mardi Gras was brought to Mobile, Alabama first. Mobile, Alabama was the first settlement in the Louisiana Territory by the French. In 1719, the French would eventually established New Orleans where Mardi Gras would be introduced to the American population.

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras would flourish and mix with different cultures. The same year New Orleans was founded was the same year that slave trade started to flourish. Mardi Gras embraced some African rituals as well as use of exotic costumes of the Native Americans. The “Mardi Gras Indians.” as they are known, made feathered costumes in the likeness of the local Natchez and danced in African styles down the streets of New Orleans. The Mardi Gras Indians are primarily of African descent.

In 1763, the Spanish would come to control Louisiana and outlaw masks and hoods in public. This ban would continue after the Americans would take control in 1803. In 1827, wearing mask in public would become legal only in three instances: Mardi Gras, Halloween, and religious rituals.

Also in 1763, the Spanish invited the exiled French from Acadia, Nova Scotia to resettle in Louisiana. The Cajun (Canadians) would be offered a cow, a chicken, and land if they came. It was part of the Spanish attempt to colonize Louisiana quickly, and it worked! For the first time in Louisiana history, people arrived in Louisiana in huge waves and brought their cultures with them.

The Cajun culture, with its French heritage, would flourish in Louisiana. They brought their Mardi Gras traditions as well, which by this time, were completely different from New Orleans. While the root of both the New Orleans tradition and the Cajun Traditions are the same, the Cajun tradition had not changed in hundreds of years whereas the New Orleans tradition had changed drastically. New Orleans aristocrats would come to be the Mardi Gras organizers and partake in the parades as well. However, the Cajuns would retain the object of making fun of the rich and stealing food from them. Also, binge drinking in New Orleans is considered an accepted norm, but in Cajun Louisiana, binge drinking in the parades is not tolerated. While alcohol is permitted at the festival and it is okay to get drunk and act a little crazy, If you over do it, you will be asked to leave.

Parts of Cajun Louisiana celebrate the traditions Courir du Mardi Gras (Running of the Mardi Gras). Masked commoners ride on horseback and gather ingredients in the morning for a communal gumbo in the afternoon. They ride house to house and beg for food while masked. If the homeowner may comply to their request by giving vegetables or a live animal. The food of choice is a live chicken or a pig, which the homeowner releases and the commoners will chase down the street. If the owners refuse to give anything, they will steal it from their barn. Now, the practice of stealing was outlawed in the early 20th century. Today, a refusing homeowner is staged and they on purposely leave the barn door unlocked for the participants in the Courir. This tradition is strong in the towns of Church Point, Eunice, Mamou, Ville Platte, and Elton, which are located in Acadiana. Their costumes are usually sheets decorated in beads and other various ornamentation. The costumes and cone-shaped hats are similar to that of the Ku Klux Klan, whom Cajuns tend to mock as well.

In parades in large cities across Louisiana, traditional New Orleans beads and doubloons (representations of gold coins) are thrown from parade floats. Today, Mardi Gras takes on a different role, as most of the participants in the parade are higher middle class people and up. The commoners are not the spectators of the events, a new tradition which was reversed the entire point of Mardi Gras. Now, instead of making fun of the rich and powerful, the participants often make fun of the poor. Many will dress as “rednecks” and wear flannel and let their butts hang out the back of their pants.

The titty flashing and binge drinking remains isolated to Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Mardi Gras has spread around the world, mainly embracing the Spanish version of Carnival however. Also, the ancient Lupercalia festival is still observed in parts of the world, including Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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Copyright 2007 All rights reserved. Reproduction without the written permission of the publisher is forbidden. All essays and articles are written by Jarred James Breaux unless stated otherwise. The mention of or reference to any person, company, or written material in these pages is not a challenge to the trademark or copyright concerned.