Keeping legendary traditions alive is part of what makes rural Mardi Gras celebrations throughout the Cajun prairie so special.
There is a rich heritage of song, dance and antics that takes place every year in the rural countryside from Elton to Tee-Mamou and points in between.
Rather than following their Crescent City revelers with grand parades and themed parties, costumed revelers wander through the countryside dancing, singing, and chasing chickens in open fields in exchange for ingredients for a large pot of okra.
Rooted in medieval French history, the Courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras Run), as it’s known, has been part of Mardi Gras in Cajun and the prairies of Louisiana since the 19th century.
Many races today follow the same traditions and route as their Cajun ancestors centuries ago, often beginning at sunrise and ending in the late afternoon with a faire do-do (dance) and a gumbo.
The main event is the chicken run led by the captain with costumed and masked participants on horseback, on foot or in caravans that travel slowly through the countryside. Their destinations are dozens of back-road hangouts – a barn here, a house there, a hunting camp in one community and a local business in another.
At each stop, the captain asks the owner for permission to visit Mardi Gras. Once permission is granted, the captain waves his flag and the riders descend and crawl home on hands and knees, shouting loudly. They dance and sing in exchange for a live chicken, rice, other ingredients for their okra, or money. Before leaving, they invite their hosts to share their gumbo that evening.
Elton rice farmer David Bertrand, whose family has run the Courir for generations, said the tradition was brought to Louisiana by early French settlers.
“They were going door to door begging and singing for chickens, pork fat, a few potatoes, rice…”, said David Bertrand. “In return, you were invited to a big ball with people in fancy dress, some with masks and gloves.”
Many of the ingredients collected were used to help replenish the community’s food supply after a long winter while families waited for spring gardens, he said. As times improved, these ingredients were used as a way for communities to come together to share a pre-Lenten celebration.
Today, Cajun communities have developed their own celebrations, some incorporating children’s races a few days before Mardi Gras and others allowing women to join in the race. The Mardi Gras Elton Courir remains an all-male race although women and children often follow the race as spectators.
In the early 20th century, the rural tradition of Mardi Gras was very strong in Elton, with the town hosting two Mardi Gras races each year. One that ran north of town and one that ran south of town.
By the time David Bertrand was a young man, the local Mardi Gras had all but disappeared. He spent years trying to preserve this unique part of his family history and Cajun culture.
His great-uncle Asa Buller was among the founders of the Elton Courir de Mardi Gras which operated for many years, taking a break during World War II.
The race was revived in the late 1980s and continues today, with younger generations taking on the role of their ancestors, David Bertrand said.
“This there seems to be a more conservative mentality now, especially among millennials to try to preserve some of the Cajun heritage that has been lost, whether it’s the music or the Mardi Gras races,” David said. Bertrand. “And it’s good to pass the torch to young people.”
In keeping with tradition, the race usually starts at dawn and ends in the late afternoon with enough ingredients to cook a large gumbo.
Costumes are as important a part of the ritual as chasing the chicken. The men wear colorful handmade costumes covered with patches and fringe, topped with a large pointed hat called a cowl and a wire mesh or fabric mask to conceal their identity.
Austin Bertrand, 27, who has been running since he was a teenager, remembers the importance Mardi Gras always had in his family.
“I did it because it was something the whole family did,” Austin Bertrand said. “In my family, it’s as important as Christmas or Easter. It’s an important holiday.
Today, Austin Bertrand is part of the young generation trying to carry on the tradition,
“It’s a dying tradition, like Cajun music,” he says. “We try to involve more people each year and involve young people.”
This year’s Mardi Gras Elton Courir will take place on Saturday, February 26. The race will begin at 7 a.m. with a prayer and blessing at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Elton before a brief stop to kneel and sing at the gravesites. of their ancestors.
The route will then continue through the countryside where 6-8 stops will be made to hunt chickens, dance and beg for ingredients.