Cajun Mardi Gras: Courir de Mardi Gras

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the last in a short series of guest posts from Harry Parsons, who I am excited to have posting about Mardi Gras history and tradition this year. Today, Carnival officially comes to a close with Mardi Gras, and tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins Lent. Harry is the content manager at Arcadia Publishing. While he spends most of his time being a bookworm, he enjoys anything outdoors especially if it involves the water.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When you think of Mardi Gras, what comes immediately to mind? If you’re like most people, you instantly picture sparkling multi-colored beads, colorful parades, and New Orleans brass band music, all enjoyed over a po’ boy or a steaming dish of jambalaya. However, while those are all unmistakable staples when it comes to a proper Fat Tuesday celebration, there’s a lot more to Mardi Gras than immediately meets the eye.

In Cajun Country, it’s all about Courir de Mardi Gras, instead – a time-honored rural tradition that takes Fat Tuesday to an entirely new level. What is Courir de Mardi Gras? Who celebrates it, what does a celebration entail, and when did the tradition first begin? Let’s take a look at closer look at the answers to all of those questions and many more.

What Is Courir de Mardi Gras?

Courir de Mardi Gras can be roughly translated as “run of Mardi Gras.” However, that “run” has absolutely nothing to do with attending a parade. It doesn’t involve waving your arms in the air in the hopes of catching a string of beads or another small gift as it’s flung from a float, either.

Courir de Mardi Gras finds participants temporarily transforming themselves into beggars. They dress up in costumes but not the colorfully elaborate ones that characterize a standard Mardi Gras celebration. Instead, it’s calico rags and homemade fringe all the way. Revelers also often wear hand-painted homemade masks constructed from wire mesh.

They then go door to door while dancing and drinking. (The end goal is to collect the ingredients for a nice big pot of gumbo.) They also sing and play music as they go. Musicians that play guitar, accordion, or fiddle often accompany the party of beggars. One reveler acts as a captain, keeping everyone in check and giving orders.

Courir de Mardi Gras begging parties can vary greatly in size. Some are only a few dozen people strong, while others can number in the hundreds. Many folks travel along the pre-planned route on foot, but some travel in trailers or wagons pulled by tractors or horses instead. The action (including the drinking) begins in the early morning and continues on through the day and evening.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What Are the Origins of Courir de Mardi Gras?

According to Cajun historians, Courir has its origins in rural medieval France. In Catholic medieval Europe, going begging from house to house was considered socially acceptable behavior, as most of the money in the land was in the hands of the wealthier, well-to-do citizens. When the poor would run short on food and resources in the winter, they’d gather and go door to door, asking for charity in exchange for a song or dance.

Organized begging parties were naturally common ways to celebrate special occasions, Mardi Gras included. This same custom is also the root of other traditional European customs like mumming, wassailing, or caroling.

Although the history of Mardi Gras in the United States is somewhat hazy, it’s generally accepted that both the holiday and many of the traditional ways to celebrate had become long-standing traditions by the mid-nineteenth century. Just as the urban sector of New Orleans with its Creole and Anglo-American elites developed traditions like balls, elaborate parades, and lavish parties, working class Cajun communities celebrated with the Courir.

Until World War II, the Courir de Mardi Gras celebration was mostly dominated by men. However, the 1950s would see organized bands of masked women also roaming the country in various regions. (After women entered the workforce during the war, it’s not surprising that they wanted to participate in other commonly male-dominated activities as well.)

Courir de Mardi Gras Today

Today, there are approximately 30 different versions of the Courir celebrated. However, they can typically be distinguished by the way the revelers travel. As touched on above, some travel completely on foot. Others ride horses or travel in wagons. A Courir group can be made up of all different sorts of people as well. Some groups are all male, while others are all female. Many, many groups are mixed gender. In recent years, groups made up entirely of children have also become common.

Some Courir celebrations are also distinguished by the use of whips to help maintain order among the travelers. (The whippings are not violent in any way.) Many scholars believe the whipping is a throwback to the pre-Christian Roman festival of Lupercalia which found participants gently whipping women, crop fields, and livestock as a type of fertility blessing. Some Courir traditions find participants willingly enduring their whippings while others call for attempts to take the whip away from the group’s captain.

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The Role of the Hosts

Of course, it’s only natural to wonder if the folks new to Courir de Mardi Gras know what to expect from the event. As a matter of fact, they do. Each stop on a Courir route is preplanned, and each host is almost always expecting the group to arrive. The captain of the group also gets the final okay from the host when they arrive and is also in charge of making sure the (by then) very drunk travelers don’t misbehave or damage their property.

As touched on above, each house traditionally gives the group an ingredient for a gumbo that will be made and enjoyed communally later on that night. Examples may include rice, carrots, okra, or other vegetables. However, the final ingredient is the most noteworthy, as well as the highlight of the celebration – a chicken, often a live one.

While the beggars collect the ingredients for the gumbo, the rest of the community enjoys a festival while they wait. Typical Courir de Mardi Gras festivals feature a bounty of delicious Cajun food – everything from boudin, to backbone stew, to succulent bayou crawfish, to pork cracklings. There is typically plenty of music, singing, dancing, crafts, and other popular forms of family-friendly fun to boot. Sounds like quite a way to celebrate!

The Fascinating History of the Krewes of Mardi Gras

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest post from a Harry Parsons, who I am excited to have posting this weekend/upcoming week to talk about Mardi Gras history and tradition, right at the height of the season. Harry is the content manager at Arcadia Publishing. While he spends most of his time being a bookworm, he enjoys anything outdoors especially if it involves the water.

The Fascinating History of the Krewes of Mardi Gras

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Can Mardi Gras really be considered complete without a parade that pulls out all the stops? After all, the colorful floats, glittering beads, and costumed revelers we’re all familiar with are a huge part of what set the tone of a truly unforgettable Mardi Gras celebration. Have you ever wondered who those revelers are or how they came to play that particular role in the festivities?

They aren’t just average, everyday folks or people who simply got lucky. They’re members of a Mardi Gras krewe, part of a time-honored tradition that has been around as long as Mardi Gras itself. Here we’ll take a closer look at the history and tradition of the krewes of Mardi Gras, as well as shine on a spotlight on some of the best known and most popular examples.

What Exactly Is a Krewe?

The term “krewe” refers to any organization or group of revelers that have come together to sponsor or otherwise host a Mardi Gras ball, parade, or another event. New Orleans sees about 60 of these events every year, each one of which exists because of a krewe. As far as how many krewes there are, New Orleans literally boasts multiple dozens of them with more springing up all the time. Each one represents a different sector of New Orleans society.

As is the case with most groups or organizations, each krewe also has its own set of rules, traditions, and values that bind them together. However, there are some similarities they all share. For instance, each krewe must host a parade that includes bands, floats, or both. Its members must also host a ball. Most importantly of all, Mardi Gras must be the primary theme and purpose for both. Each one of the Mardi Gras krewes is part of a larger organization called the Krewe of Krewes that was first formed in 1979.

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The Origins of the Mardi Gras Krewes

As touched on above, the Mardi Gras krewes are as old as Mardi Gras itself, and you quite simply don’t have one without the other. The origins of Mardi Gras itself go all the way back to medieval Europe.

As a tradition, it would spread through Rome and Venice before eventually reaching the French House of the Bourbons. It was here that the tradition of the “Boeuf Gras” (or “fatted calf”) would take root. That tradition would follow French settlers to America, setting the stage for the Mardi Gras we know and love today.

March 2, 1699 would see the explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrive at a particular 60-mile patch of land located just south of New Orleans. That year, March 2nd was also the eve of Mardi Gras, so the land was dubbed “Pointe du Mardi Gras” in acknowledgment of that fact. Bienville would also found the settlement then known as “Fort Louis de la Louisiane” (now Mobile) in 1702. The following year, that settlement would also host the very first official Mardi Gras celebration here in America.

A secret society known as the Masque de la Mobile, an early forerunner of the modern day krewes, was established in 1704. Although the Masque would disband in 1709, other similar groups would spring up to take its place. In 1718, New Orleans would officially be founded, a place where Mardi Gras was openly celebrated. In the 1740s the first Mardi Gras society balls would be established. By the 1830s, Mardi Gras would also be celebrated with the colorful parades and street processions we know and love today.

In 1856, six young natives hailing from Mobile would form the Mistick Krewe of Comus, named for John Milton’s hero of the same name. Comus would go down in history as the first official Mardi Gras krewe, a group that lent mystery and magic to the festivities with masked balls, glittering floats, and other celebratory events.

In 1870, the second krewe – known as the Twelfth Night Revelers – would appear with many others to follow over the years to come. Today, there are more than 60 active krewes and counting.

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A Look at a Few Famous Krewes

Many krewes are active throughout the year, and all have their own unique approaches to Mardi Gras. The following are just a few well-known examples:

Krewe of Cosmos-Calcasieu Parish’s First Merrymakers

Formed in 1951, this krewe was originally sponsored by the Fifty’s Club. Its first members were also all Fourth Degree Members of the Knights of Columbus. Today, the Krewe of Cosmos boasts 220 members, as well as a waiting list filled with hopeful potential members.

The group remains active throughout the calendar year and is well known for visiting nursing homes, as well as hosting a variety of membership events. They include but are not limited to a crawfish ball, a barbecue, and a Twelfth Night ball open to the public.

Krewe of Contraband

This krewe got its start in 1963 at a housewarming celebration. When local businessman Sammy Navarra mentioned wanting to found a krewe, Ernest C. Schindler promptly handed him a check, stating that he was its first member. Afterward, Navarra would invite over 150 business owners to join the krewe as well.

The Krewe of Contraband considers the honoring of women, especially the daughters and granddaughters of its members, to be its primary purpose. Any eligible descendant that has reached her 18th birthday may be chosen to serve on the Royal Court.

Krewe of Omega

This krewe was formed in 1970 by Joseph Moffett Jr. for the purpose of providing both youth and elderly citizens with meaningful social activities. It is also well known for giving out service awards to community members that go above and beyond to improve life for local people. Currently, the Krewe of Omega has 46 members, each of which is either a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity of Lake Charles or the spouse of a member.

Of course, the above are only a few of the many Mardi Gras krewes currently active today. Like the above examples, each features its own focus and represents a different slice of society. Each lends its own special touch to Mardi Gras as we know it today.

Monday Re-Run: On American Girls and Being a Molly

When I was a child, I was an ugly duckling. I was terribly thin; I had big glasses, and my Mollymom just didn’t know what to do with my uber-curly hair, so she always tried to just blow dry it straight, and I ended up with a fuzzy hairdo. I loved to read, Coke-bottle glasses sliding down my nose as I buried it in a book. I liked to play with my dolls, making up stories None of my dolls looked like me–until I got American Girl doll Molly.

Molly had glasses. Her mousy brown hair was always braided to keep it out of her face. And she had stories. Those stories were historical, yes. I got to learn about WW II in an immersive way. But I felt a connection to this doll after reading how badly she wanted a dog (then, as now, I loved dogs), how fiercely she could love a friend and still be angry with her (I had a friend who stayed with us often because her mother was very ill, and we loved one another but fought when we’d been around one another too much–like Molly and her English friend Emily when Emily is staying to be out of danger), how Molly went to camp and had such fun despite hating bugs and getting poison ivy (I loved camp and the outdoors but hated bugs), and how badly Molly wanted to be the beautiful star of the show (wearing pin curls and removing glasses for the recital bore much resemblance to how badly I wanted to look like the other girls).

SamanthaI don’t remember which of the dolls I got next, but over the years, my parents bought Kirsten, Felicity, and Samantha for me. They always bought the doll and the books; I rarely got any of the additional things that the company sold for the dolls. And honestly, that was fine with me. What I wanted was to play with the dolls and tell their stories. I didn’t need a lot of accouterments for that. I read, and I fixed their hair, and I pretended conversations between them should they ever meet one another. I admired Felicity’s red hair, which I wished I had, and I rejoiced when she got her horse, Penny (much like with dogs, I have always had a soft spot for horses). I was entranced with the way Samantha stood with her friend, Nellie, as she was orphaned and sent to work in a factory. I wept with Kirsten when her friend died on the way to America.

Later, I would question some of these narratives. I would recognize the privilege that is hidden in the packaging. Sure, it looks great to have dolls that are historically placed, who come into contact with the issues of the day and are active rather than passive. And they do some amazing things. My dolls were all white, though. It wasn’t until 1993, seven years and several dolls after the company began (and a little past my collecting days), that Addy, a black girl living during the Civil War, introduced any sense of diversity into the line. And the historical “Looking Back” pieces at the end of the books rarely concentrated on women’s and girls’ history, instead giving a broad-brush approach to the time period. That would’ve worked for an introduction; but for a conclusion to books that had focused so much on the girl, it left her out of history once again. It was disheartening.

And those dolls were—-are—-expensive. They can cost hundreds of dollars with accessories, and even without accessories, just doll and books, they’re generally $100 or so. The company has been purchased by Mattel, and the original dolls have been mostly archived in a “Historical Line” in favor of promoting dolls that are more contemporary. Unsurprisingly, these dolls are mostly white, privileged, and don’t do too much boat-rocking. They’re not tomboys like Felicity, child labor activists like Samantha (or suffragettes like her aunt Cordelia), or escaping, like Addy, from an oppressive system (slavery, just in case that wasn’t clear) to find their family.

I wouldn’t have found anything to identify with in most of the new dolls. I wasn’t blonde, artsy, or all that worried about keeping up with my classmates. I went to a large school in a small town–if you didn’t go to the local private school, you went to the public school, and that was that. I was awkward. I got picked on for my weird hair and big glasses and for being ok with touching mice and hamsters and earthworms and all those things I wasn’t supposed to want to touch. Now there’s nothing wrong with being an Isabelle–with being a blonde at an art school worried about keeping up with your classmates. That just wasn’t me, and it isn’t many other girls. I was a Molly, though I wanted desperately to be a Samantha. I’m still a Molly.

And I can’t help but think of how many American Girls are not represented in that collection–even fewer now than previously, even less emphasis on empowering them, encouraging them to part of large social movements. Where’s our Civil Rights Era doll, or a gay rights advocate? Where are our Native American girls after extended European contact (the one Native American doll, Kaya, has a story that takes in 1764)?  It’s time we see those American girls.

Historical American Girls

(This post originally appeared as part of the A to Z Challenge 2014. In the 2 years since then, the American Girls company has introduced several new dolls, including several non-white characters, expanding their contemporary line. I still wish they were making more historical dolls, especially more historical dolls of color.)