Mardi Gras

Courir de Mardi Gras: How to experience Mardi Gras in Cajun Country

Want to celebrate Mardi Gras but away from New Orleans?

Carnival is here, and, after several years at this rodeo, many of us consider ourselves Mardi Gras experts.

But what if I told you — only two and a half hours west on Interstate 10 is a Mardi Gras unlike anything you’ve ever seen and probably unlike anything you’ve ever imagined.

 

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Out in Cajun Country — the small towns surrounding Lafayette — Mardi Gras is called Courir de Mardi Gras (which translates to “Fat Tuesday Run”), with traditions passed down from the rural areas of Catholic medieval France. Many of those traditions originated in Celtic Europe and have ties to what we see during Halloween.

The costumes, food, music, language and activities are all different from our Mardi Gras.

The most commonly seen tradition is “the run” which consists of townspeople and sometimes visitors, forming a band of “peasants” (known as the “Mardi Gras,” and the only time it’s OK to use a hard “s” in the word) that go from farm to farm and home to home, asking neighbors for ingredients and nickels to help prepare the town’s communal evening gumbo. Those neighbors will often release a chicken or two, and the Mardi Gras will give chase through muddy yards and open fields until they’ve captured the bird.

The run happens in most Cajun towns, but each locale has its own unique way of celebrating. Here’s a handy that can help you recognize the differences and choose your destination!

 

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Basile — For women and men

Seventy or so residents gather at the Basile Pig Barn on Feb. 25 (Mardi Gras Day) at 7 a.m., for the town’s traditional Courir de Mardi Gras. The run was suspended during World War II, but had a revival in the 1960s. While many towns only allow men to be runners, in Basile, women can run and serve as capitaines.

The Mardi Gras Run happens between houses, businesses and even a retirement home. They chase chickens (though don’t kill them anymore, as all ingredients for the gumbo has been pre-ordered) and beg for nickels (called cinq sous). If they don’t get those nickels, they might resort to playing practical jokes on bystanders, like digging through their pockets or tying their shoelaces together.

 

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For a better understanding of where you can watch the run, send a message to The Basile Mardi Gras Association. All are invited to the community gumbo and fais do do back at the Pig Barn. Live Cajun music starts at 2 p.m., the Mardi Gras runners return at 3 p.m., and gumbo is served at 5 p.m.! The event is free and BYOB!

Choupic — More beatings than beads

This small town’s Mardi Gras tradition centers less around beads and more around beatings. In fact, in Chopic you won’t even find horse riding and chasing chickens. It’s a third way of celebrating. Here, it’s all about chasing children and flogging them with willow tree branches (and occasionally the flexible end of a fishing pole).

I know it sounds rough, but the day’s all in good fun and the “flogging” is more of a simulation of past traditions. The whipping can be traced back to the burlap whips used in Brittany — where Acadians were originally from — in pre-Christian Celtic Europe. In the medieval period, flagellants would walk through the streets whipping themselves and the occasional onlooker to beat the sin out of them.

 

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That’s basically the idea today, except — and I must stress this — nobody gets hurt. In Choupic, unmarried men (usually from 16 through their 20s) secretly organize the run and don’t disclose the location to anyone (though Possum Square seems to be a popular meeting point). They meet early on Mardi Gras morning, and then move from one residential area to the next, chasing after kids. When caught, the kids are made to recite their Catholic prayers before receiving their pre-Lenten flogging.

Again, details of the run aren’t released, so stay alert if you want to get a peak of this ancient (and fun — no one gets hurt!) tradition.

Church Point — One of the best

In 1961, representatives from Mamou and Church Point flipped a coin to see who would have their courir on Mardi Gras Day. Mamou won and, since then, Church Point has celebrated a couple of days before, on Sunday.

It’s actually a two-day event these days. Saturday is all about the kids. There’s a run for children — excluding alcohol and horses, but maybe not chickens — and then an afternoon parade. You can find details here.

 

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Sunday is… well … not all about the kids. You can find information about the day here. Only men are allowed to run — though women and children are allowed to participate in the trail ride that follows the runners.

Costumes (required to run), chickens, pigs, gumbo, alcohol, and live music… it’s all here in Church Point at what many claim is one of the best traditional Mardi Gras around. In many towns you’ll hear the traditional “La Danse de Mardi Gras” sung. The tune is a melody from the Bretons in the northern coast of France, though the lyrics vary by town. The beginning of the Church Point version translates to the following:

“The Mardi Gras come from everywhere around the hub.
Once each year to ask for charity.
An old potato, a potato and some cracklins.”

Elton — Smalltown and intimate

This small back country town near Eunice hosts their own courir with runners going house to house offering to perform their Danse de Mardi Gras in exchange for chickens for gumbo, or nickels for rice.

Their run takes place on Saturday and you can find information about registration, fees and the route in their Facebook group.

 

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Eunice — one of the biggest! (our top choice)

Eunice’s courir is one of the biggest around with approximately 2,000 participants — both men and women — running on Mardi Gras day. But festivities actually start on Friday, kicking off five days of live Cajun music and jam sessions, drinks, local food and general revelry. You can find information about registering here, but use this page for a full schedule of activities.

There are full boucheries (a whole-hog butchering that provides cracklins, boudin, backbone stew and much more) on Sunday and Monday morning, plus a highly recommended fais do-do at Lakeview Park & Beach on Sunday and Monday nights.

Tuesday’s the big show, though, with registration for the run beginning at 8 a.m. (and registration starting two hours earlier). Costumes are required for the run, and the route is 13 miles long! Runners ride on trailers (get there early to get a spot!), travel on horseback, or walk, stopping at farms along the way to offer a dance in exchange for gumbo ingredients and nickels. By 3 p.m., the group returns back to town for a parade and then more music.

 

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If you’d rather watch the courir, rather than take part in it, that’s an option, too. And there’ll be plenty of music to keep you having fun downtown while you wait for the group to return.

Gheens — More whipping and near NOLA

Mardi Gras festivities in Gheens are a lot like the flogging traditions in Choupic, but not quite as secretive. The small town is also just an hour’s drive away from New Orleans, so it might be a little more accessible for those looking for a shorter trip on Mardi Gras morning.

The oldest of Gheens’ residents say the tradition existed when they were children, and — because there aren’t written records documenting the early whipping — it’s impossible to say when exactly the rituals began.

Today, teenage boys and young men dress in costume (sometimes scary, sometimes resembling Mardi Gras costumes we’re more familiar with) and are given bells to pin on their clothing. They meet near the Company Canal and the old Gheens family plantation in a field at the back of the town and load into trucks.

 

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The group rides along Highway 654, tapping their willow whips as a warning to children. The bells jingle, and the young men and younger boys taunt one another until the wagons arrive at a house and the chase begins. Younger children being chased have two choices: they can fall to their knees, yelling “Pardon! Pardon!” for mercy, or they can continue to try to run from the masked attackers (who do not give up easily).

It sounds wild, and it is… but it’s also a lot of fun and a beloved tradition.

Later in the morning — by about 11 a.m. — a parade begins, featuring homemade floats that attract visitors from several other towns in the region.

Mamou — One of the most famous

Mamou has another of the more popular Mardi Gras runs, made even more famous when the late Anthony Bourdain documented his visit to the town’s Cajun Mardi Gras for an incredible and inspiring episode in his “Parts Unknown” series.

The celebration starts on Saturday with local Cajun bands like Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, but things go up a notch on Monday night with a popular street dance lasting until 11 p.m.

 

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The town’s back up at daybreak on Mardi Gras morning to get ready for the run, which takes off at 8 a.m. from the American Legion Hall on Main Street. Only costumed men are able to participate in the run, though women are allowed to watch. For men who don’t have their own horse, wagons and trailers are usually available to ride on.

While chickens are chased and pranks are played by the runners, a block party revs up downtown near the legendary Fred’s Lounge, sometimes going as late as midnight.

A full schedule is available here.

Opelousas — Creole meets Cajun

There’s a lot going on in Opelousas for Mardi Gras these days. The 10th L’Argent Trailride & Chicken Run is a two-day Creole-focused event that begins with live Zydeco music by Opelousas favorites at El Sid O’s Zydeco & Blues Club in nearby Lafayette.

The next day, the trail ride (traditionally on horses) and accompanying parade leaves from Opelousas’ Yambilee Arena at noon, and the chicken run starts at 2 p.m. That night, it’s back to Sid O’s for more zydeco. A schedule of the weekend festivities can be found here.

On Mardi Gras morning at 11 a.m., a more traditional parade has returned to Opelousas after several years off, and the people of the town are thrilled to have it back! There’s music before and after the parade, and you can find a schedule of those acts here.

Soileau — Creole all the way

Like Opelousas, the small, rural community of Soileau (affectionately referred to as “Metro Soileau”) hosts one of only a few Creole (as opposed to Cajun) Courir de Mardi Gras. The event is held on Lundi Gras, Feb. 24, and starts at “Andrew Cezar’s sulky racing track.”

 

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The day kicks off at 10 a.m. with a traditional run and trail ride (runners on horseback, music, chickens and everything else you could ever want from a courir), followed by a Zydeco dance and a gumbo feast at the Allen Parish Civic Center in nearby Oberlin from 5 to 10 p.m.

It only costs $10 per person, and all the information you need to join is on the event’s Facebook page.

Tee Mamou-Iota — A separate run for women (and another for men)

The Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Folklife Festival is now in its 33rd year, bringing several communities together to celebrate. There’s an all-women run on Saturday, while the men run on Mardi Gras day. They’ve got live music and entertainment throughout the morning and afternoon at this free fest, as well as tons of great local food available. (I have no idea what a “Syrup Pie” is by a want it!)

Contact fest organizers here if you want to learn about running in the event or if you have any other questions.

 

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Plan The Trip!

Now that you have the deets on what’s available, plan the trip!

 

WRITER MATT HAINES LIVES IN NEW ORLEANS. FOLLOW HIM FOR ALL THINGS (COURIR DE) MARDI GRAS AND BEYOND AT MATTHAINESWRITES.COM, AND ON FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER.