The courir de Mardi Gras has its origins from "begging festivals," where people put on costumes and entertained their neighbors for food, drinks, or even money.
Photos submitted by Carolyn Ware
Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag,
Allons chez un autre voisin,
Demandé la charité pour les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Ouais, au gombo ce soir!
Captain, captain, wave your flag, let's go to another neighbor's.
Asking for charity for everyone who'll come join us later,
Everyone who'll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!
The Mardi Gras most closely tied to Louisiana takes place east of the Mississippi River and involves ornate floats, celebrity krewe kings, and the requisite few tons of garbage come Ash Wednesday on the streets of New Orleans. Its history and traditions have been documented in literature, film, and more than a few police reports. This is not the Mardi Gras that Associate English Professor Carolyn Ware spent more than 20 years studying.
A self-described army brat “not from anywhere,” Ware earned her doctorate in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania when she became interested in Cajun music and culture. This led her to Louisiana in the late 1980s to learn more.
During this time, she was asked to join a research project on the courir de Mardi Gras, which takes place annually in various Acadiana communities like Basile, Eunice, Iota, Mamou, and Ville Platte. The courir, unlike the celebration in New Orleans, has few cheap beads and hardly ever any public nudity.
The colorful, many times homemade, costumes and capuchons traditionally worn by men, take on a different look during female Mardi Gras runs.
Photos submitted by Carolyn Ware
Instead, the only thing “stripped down” to the bare essentials in Acadiana involves horseback riders and other costumed revelers wandering from home to home, drinking alcohol (one thing the two celebrations share), dancing, and begging for ingredients for an evening meal, which usually includes gumbo and is prepared by patient wives and mothers.
One of the towns, Iota, had received a grant to study the traditions of the courir and perhaps how they differed from those of its more popular sister in the Crescent City. It was here that Ware became fascinated with the evolving role of women in the celebration.
“I became especially fascinated when I learned that, although historically a man’s tradition, there was also a women’s Mardi Gras run,” said Ware. “They convinced me to come back the next year to run with them and when I did, in my new mask and Mardi Gras suit. I was hooked.”
Ware purchased her costume from one of several Acadian women who hand craft and sell traditional mesh masks, costumes, and capuchons, large cone-shaped ceremonial hats that closely resemble the “dunce caps” of yore, except with more vibrant colors. She cites the tradition of costuming one’s self for Cajun Mardi Gras to the traditions of France and other parts of Europe since at least the 1400s.
“It is a part of what is called the ‘mid-winter house visit traditions’ or ‘begging festivals’ where people disguise themselves and go around to neighbors’ houses and put on some kind of performance,” said Ware. “In exchange, they get a treat, which can take the form of food and drink or even money.”
But, as opposed to a remnant of an older tradition, Ware says the Cajun Mardi Gras is an ever-evolving custom that has changed over the centuries. This allowed the inclusion of women in ways other than costume designing. As they moved out of the sewing room and kitchen, where they had historically prepared the evening meals for the male runners, they started to look to join in the actual runs. This evolution became the focus of Ware’s research.
Ware focused on the Basile and Tee Mamou area (between Iota and Basile) where women were steeped in the tradition of Mardi Gras from birth and saw the celebration as something that belonged to everyone, not just men.
"Some of the women I know can climb a tree or fence just as well or better than a man can," said Professor Carolyn Ware.
Photos submitted by Carolyn Ware
“Some women said that they began running Mardi Gras as mothers to show their kids what it was all about other than just support functions, which are no small jobs in themselves,” said Ware. “They had always been integral to the cooking, but also to the performance aspect as well, because when men arrive at the homes, they look for women to flirt with and dance with and it would be far less fun without those interactions.”
In the end, Ware found that many women were content with the traditional female roles, but others wanted to get in on the fun and craziness of the run. After World War II, there were experiments with females joining traditional runs due to the lack of male runners. But, in the 1940s and 1950s, the two sexes drinking and carousing together, even on Mardi Gras, in disguise, in public, in South Louisiana was an improper thing.
But, by the 1970s, these social barriers had fallen and women decided to become more involved in the runs, enlisting their husbands as captains in some cases for their own “separate but equal” Mardi Gras runs.
“I found that women’s runs weren’t seen as traditional, kind of like women’s athletics are not perceived as ‘real’ sports by many,” said Ware. “My goal was to find out how women ran Mardi Gras in ways that were either similar or different to their male counterparts and why it was important.”
What Ware found was that women had their own styles of running Mardi Gras and brought their own aesthetics to their costumes. But, regardless of the gender of the runner, many of the conventions remained unchanged. Ware did admit that many women had their own way of “clowning,” which sometimes led to unique role reversals.
“Some of the women I know can climb a tree or fence just as well or better than a man can,” said Ware. “But, there also women that preferred the more ‘clever’ kind of clowning, where you’re making people laugh through just picking at or teasing men for a change.”
Although it might seem that many women might view having separate Mardi Gras runs as a type of female empowerment, Ware says that is generally not the case. She says that most of the women she has interviewed to do not see themselves as “women’s libbers.” Instead, they see themselves as conduits of a way of life that they want to make sure exists for their children and all future generations of both Cajun men and women.
“Any living tradition is going to change,” said Ware. “It will change according to the community and according to time.”
Carolyn E. Ware is the author of "Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward," published by University of Illinois Press.