A Tale of Two Mardi Gras

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

If it was luck that had Cavelier de la Salle find the mouth of the Mississippi and take possession of the land drained by the river by naming Louisiana after Louis XIV, the Sun King, and that on Mardi Gras Day, March 3, 1699, Iberville established it as a French colony, sometimes luck does a good job. Since then, our state lives under the sign of the visions of grandeur and the antics of carnival. This ancient festival that dates back to the Middle Ages is probably the first image that comes to mind for outside people when they of think our name. The pomp associated with the last days before the solemn season of Lent draws the world to Louisiana, hoping to live unusual emotions and maybe catch a necklace Made in China or two or, for the lucky, a coconut. Masked or not, everyone takes on a new identity before returning to the daily grind. But this is only one aspect of a party that plays on ambiguity.

Jean de La Fontaine, a seventeenth century French poet, is known for his Fables. One of the best known, the City Mouse and the Country Mouse, plays on a well-known theme; the moral of the story of the encounter between the rustic and the urban is that rural life is better than city life. We find this pattern everywhere in literature, but in Louisiana, we have a version we can see, touch, smell and even participate in every year. But in this case, the moral is a little different because it is not certain, according to taste, which of the two is best. There is a choice.

Carnival in New Orleans, called just the City in Louisiana French, with its floats, its marching bands and extravagant costumes, is a model for several municipalities across the state. The Krewes, these groups that organize not only parades, but the lavish balls that accompany them, spare no expense in pursuing this annual madness. Even in the far north in Shreveport, there are parades where crowds gather to catch trinkets thrown from the top of floats and to salute their king for a day. In the distant past, as seen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame where Victor Hugo crowns Quasimodo, the king was he who came from the lowest ranks of society, inverting social order as a way for the people to blow off steam. Nowadays, carnival royalty comes from society’s the upper echelons, inverting the inversion.

In the southwestern prairies, “Le Courir du Mardi Gras”, a tradition that was almost lost and brought back from oblivion by Revon Reed and Fred and Paul Tate in Mamou, the show is reversed. Instead of a parade going past an immobile but still agitated crowd, the “runners” – actually on horseback and followed by musicians in a wagon pulled by tractors – with their famous pointed “capuchons”, their cries of “cinq sous “and led by the captain, go from house to house to beg for the ingredients of a communal gumbo, all the while singing “La Chanson des Mardi Gras”. Spectators who try to remain on the sidelines are quickly absorbed into the party; whether they are called upon to contribute financially or forced to improvise a dance step, they join in the celebration. If it’s a foggy morning, one can easily believe oneself transported back to the time of the cathedrals.

One day I saw Mardi Gras in Haiti which, from my Louisiana point of view, was a mixture of the two celebrations. I was in the capital of Port-au-Prince when I heard from afar a joyous music and the shouts and songs of a cheerful crowd. Soon I saw a float like one from home, carrying musicians playing songs in the quick time rhythms of the islands. Instead of passing in front of spectators standing by the wayside, the float was surrounded by hundreds of dancers and other revelers who followed it through the city. Whatever your preference, the city, the country, or a combination of both, we are all invited to the ball on Mardi Gras Day.