When it comes to Mardi Gras, there’s a city party and a country party.
Feathers can fly in either.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Creole folklore Professor Barry Ancelet explained the differences between the two.
“In Louisiana, we inherited two models of Mardi Gras,” said Ancelet. “One urban and one rural.”
In cities like Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette, you go to the Mardi Gras and beg masked float riders for beads, doubloons and other trinkets.
“It looks like the rich, the float riders, are throwing their jewels and money to the crowd,” said Ancelet. “It’s turning things upside down. Any other time those objects are worthless, but in the moment those beads … I’ve seen grown men step on a small child for beads. But it’s a playful moment, a social game and it only makes sense in that moment.”
Another common scene in New Orleans and Lafayette are the Mardi Gras Indians, who aren’t Indians at all but African Creoles who create elaborate, often feathered, costumes and, on Mardi Gras day, parade through their neighborhoods. Their followers are what’s known as the second line and their parade is about community.
“It’s all about territory, about confirming community,” Ancelet said in a Hertiage Lecture for the Foundation for Historical Louisiana on Feb. 12. “Years ago, if they crossed paths they would fight, but now it’s about who has the best costume, who dances the best.”
While the parade is the procession in the city, in the country it’s the courir de Mardi Gras, French for “Mardi Gras run,” and it comes to you.
“The Mardi Gras goes from house to house and begs from the people they visit for ingredients for a communal meal. They even sing a begging song, ‘La Chanson de Mardi Gras,’” said Ancelet. “In South Louisiana, that meal’s usually a gumbo and ideally they beg for a chicken … a live chicken.”
He went on to explain that a chicken is very valuable to those who live in rural areas. But the homeowner gets entertained in return for his generosity as people try to catch the chicken. They also do tricks and perform short tableaux for the homeowner and guests. Once they have collected enough ingredients, the group returns to the community as conquering heroes to prepare the gumbo for everyone.
Members of the courir de Mardi Gras are typically dressed in costumes of pieced Harlequin patterns because, traditionally, they were poor. They usually wear a capuchon, a cone-shaped hat, that says “don’t take me serious today, I’m playing a fool,” and a mask typically made of screen.
“The mask has two purposes,” said Ancelet. “It enables you to play a role and hides your identity from someone who would know you.”
Men dress up as women, women dress as men. The young dress as the elderly and vice versa.
Caucasians dress up in black face; African Americans don white face. Everything is a potential prop.
“Mardi Gras has a lot to do with inverting society’s roles,” continued Ancelet. “Mardi Gras play is very intense but it’s only funny if the punch line is clear, and, in the end the status quo is always restored.”