The Cajuns are a hearty group. In 1755 their French-speaking ancestors, who had lived in Canada for generations, refused to pay tribute to the British king. As a result, they were separated from their families, pushed onto small boats and forced out to sea. More than half died before they were finally welcomed in southern Louisiana. The rest made new lives but retained their old traditions, the country-style Mardi Gras is one of the most important. Having survived the exile 250-years ago, they're not about to be defeated by a category three hurricane named, Rita; even if it was a near direct hit.
I was a Mardi Gras novice when I arrived a few days before the 2005 celebration in Elton, a small town of 1,200, about forty miles northeast of Lake Charles.
It was 6:30 a.m., a warm, slightly muggy morning in mid-February 2005. I was surrounded by about two dozen men, clad in bright, loose-fitting striped coveralls with hand-torn fringe. Most had tall conical dunce caps, layered with beads and paint. One wore a black mop fixed to his head with double-faced tape. Several sported mesh masks, decorated with paint and vaguely pornographic appendages, which distorted features. Two had rubber masks with likenesses of leering U.S. presidents - one Republican, one Democrat.
For a minute, I thought I was dreaming.
Then a horse neighed, and a woman with a gauzy green dress and wings dismounted. "I'm a fairy," she said, before twirling off. Music from a four-piece band that included a guitar, fiddle, accordion and broomstick bass, began blasting from a makeshift stage atop a flatbed trailer.
I was awake, very awake.
This was Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana's Cajun Country, seven months before September 24, 2005, when Hurricane Rita slammed into nearby Lake Charles. This area escaped Hurricane Katrina. So, this is the way it will be again this year - a wild, wacky and thoroughly delightful celebration that in recent years has ranked as one of the Southeast's top twenty tourist attractions.
"This year we really have something to celebrate," said Connie Hebert, assistant director of the Jeff Davis Parish Tourist Commission.
There are two distinct ways to celebrate the festival. Costumed revelers running and riding horseback through the countryside in a light-hearted re-enactment of Medieval begging rituals typify the rural Mardi Gras. The more familiar urban Mardi Gras features glamorous kings and queens, glittering balls and parades with lavishly decorated floats.
What the two have in common is that they entail weeks of pre-Lenten merrymaking culminating on Fat Tuesday, the English translation of the French words Mardi gras. In short, Mardi Gras is the last chance to let loose before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
People most definitely let loose. Whether rural or urban, Mardi Gras features plenty of clowning, much of which is not for the faint of heart. Revelers poke fun at the society's pillars: the church, the wealthy and the educated. Young folks dress as old, men dress as women, whites dress as blacks, and vice-versa. The celebrations might be family and visitor friendly, but they're definitely not politically correct.
By 7:30 a.m. the sun had broken through the clouds, more than 100 people and a few dozen horses had gathered, and Elton's Courir de Mardi Gras, the Countryside Run, was ready to begin. The runners, some on foot and some on horseback, raced from house to house, "begging" their neighbors for something to put in the communal gumbo: rice, sausage or, best of all, a live chicken. The homeowners, who had all agreed in advance to participate, made the runners perform a dance, chase the chicken or jump through a series of real and proverbial hoops in order to collect donations. The result was a combination of Halloween and frat party ribaldry.
Once captured, the chickens were put in cages, although I was assured they weren't really food for the evening meal, at least not for that evening's meal. This wasn't out of any great sensitivity toward animals but rather simple practicality. "We started cooking the gumbo early this morning," said Dean Young, one of the cooks. "We wouldn't be able to eat until way into the night if we used these chickens."
By 10:30 a.m. the run had expanded to include families with children, often in costume, on flatbed trailers. "We're just enjoying the fun," said one woman, inviting my husband and me to hop aboard. Other families and out-of-town spectators simply parked in an open space along the route and cheered as the riders passed.
We followed the run for several hours, but opted out of the evening's dance or fais-do-do, when the gumbo would be served. Instead we drove twenty miles down the road to Jennings to see their Mardi Gras parade.
Jennings, with a population of 11,000, has a low-key family-style parade, and it's a perfect introduction to the New Orleans, or urban, style Mardi Gras. Masked balls were held in New Orleans as early as the late 1700s and have evolved into today's gala traditions.
Our first task was to learn Mardi Gras terms. Krewes are social groups similar to fraternities and sororities, with membership only by invitation. Their main objective is to prepare for Mardi Gras by electing a king and queen, decorating a float and organizing a dazzling ball. Most balls are private affairs, although in recent years a few allow guests.
During a series of Mardi Gras parades, krewe members toss bright-colored bead necklaces and other trinkets to spectators who jostle for space, wave to catch the attention of krewe members and shout "Throw me something, mister." In Mardi Gras lingo, these are called "throws."
"This is fun. I'm gonna get more beads than anybody," announced a little boy who appeared to be about eight. He already had fifteen or twenty necklaces and sported an ear-to-ear grin to go with the baubles.
The Jennings parade was exciting, but it was in Lake Charles that we really experienced a full-scale urban Mardi Gras. Festivities included an African-American, a children's, a pet and royal parades, as well as a Royal Gala held in the Civic Center.
Unlike the home-made funky pajama-like costumes of the rural Mardi Gras, these costumes ranged from outlandishly outstanding to truly magnificent. Some folks spent more than $10,000 on costumes. Headpieces weighed up to eighty pounds.
People begin working on next year's Mardi Gras as soon as the last one is finished, and most people had their 2006 costumes nearly complete when Hurricane Rita arrived. The majority of costumes were partially or completely salvaged after the storm. No way anyone was going to cancel the next year's celebration.
Instead they're going to make it better than ever, introducing a new Red Hat Parade, inspired by the Red Hat Society, an organization for fun-loving women over fifty. There will be women aged fifty-plus in red hats, younger women in pink hats and men of any age who are willing to dress up as women. "It's going to be fun," said Megan Monsour, a candidate for a pink hat. "Wild, crazy fun."
That, of course, is what Mardi Gras is all about - and no hurricane will change that.
When you go:
In 2006 Mardi Gras falls on February 28. While various preparations and parties begin January 6, the Twelfth Night after Christmas when the Wise Men are said to have reached Bethlehem. The major festivities take place the weekend before actual Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.
Jeff Davis Parish
Elton's Courir de Mardi Gras, held from early morning until mid-afternoon.
The meeting place and route change every year. Residents will point visitors to the right spot.
Jennings Parade at 5:00 p.m.
For more information:
Jeff Davis Parish Tourist Commission (Elton and Jennings)
Krewe of Omega parade, African-American parade at 2 p.m.
Downtown Lake Charles
Krewe of Barkus, dog parade at 3 p.m.
Bord du Lac Drive
Children's Parade at 3:30 p.m.
Lake Charles Civic Center
Mardi Gras Royal Gala at 7 p.m.
Lake Charles Civic Center
(There is small admission.)
February 28, Mardi Gras Day
Merchants' Parade at 11 a.m.
Midtown Lake Charles
Red Hat Parade at 1:30 p.m.
Midtown Lake Charles
Krewe of Krewes Parade at 5:30 p.m.
Midtown Lake Charles
For more information and a more complete calendar of events: Southwest Louisiana/Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau;
Telephone: 1-800-456-SWLA (7952)