“It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” — Mark Twain
For hundreds of years, revelers have celebrated Mardi Gras throughout the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Nice, France and Venice, Italy. But in Louisiana, we believe the first modern Mardi Gras happened on March 2, 1699. That’s when Iberville and Bienville, two French explorers, landed just outside of New Orleans. They named the spot Pointe du Mardi Gras and held their own celebration. Over one hundred years later in 1827, the streets of New Orleans would fill again with dancing merrymakers in colorful costumes for a day of celebration before the Lenten season.
Now fast forward ten years later, the first-ever parade with floats rolled down the streets of New Orleans, sparking a tradition that carries on today. Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday, is celebrated with purple, green, and gold decorations. History says in 1872, the first daytime carnival King selected these symbolic colors based on their meaning: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.
Courir de Mardi Gras
While New Orleans may host the best-known Fat Tuesday celebrations, veer 140 miles west to discover colorful Mardi Gras traditions held in Lafayette, Louisiana and surrounding towns and villages. Parades typically kick off ten days before Fat Tuesday as the area celebrates with rowdy revelry.
In the countryside, you’ll find carousers celebrating the Courir de Mardi Gras, or the Mardi Gras run, which occurs in many towns throughout Louisiana’s Cajun Country. Rooted in French medieval history, the Courir de Mardi Gras features participants on horseback, foot, and wagon making their way through rural neighborhoods. These revelers customarily dress in colorful costumes, masks, and a tall cone-shaped hat called a capuchon. In accord with tradition, celebrants go from house to house singing and dancing as they “beg” for ingredients for a communal gumbo to be shared later in the night.
And the main ingredient of that delicious gumbo is — you guessed it — chicken! A horse-backed Capitaine leads the Mardi Gras run, releasing chickens for participants to chase on foot. It’s quite a sight to see these partygoers chase after chickens as they did in olden times. The air is electrified with live Cajun music, courtesy of a tractor-pulled bandwagon coupled with much singing and dancing.
Beads — The Jewelry of Choice
The Courir de Mardi Gras makes its way through rural neighborhoods and into the nearest town for a community-wide parade. Several dozen floats roll down main streets along with exhausted chicken-chasers and those on horseback, too. Crowds line the streets to catch the celebrated jewelry of the event — Mardi Gras beads! These quintessential plastic strands of every Mardi Gras parade evoke shouts of “Throw me something, Mister!” from parade-goers.
Have you ever been to a Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana? Share your experience with us in the comments below.