Cajuns and Creoles are universally known for their “laissez les bons temps rouler” (“Let the good times roll!”) spirit. But Mardi Gras in Acadiana is truly a time for Cajuns and Creoles alike to indulge the pleasures of the flesh. Whether your fancy is a city-style Mardi Gras ball in Lafayette, or chasing chickens on horseback in the countryside to make a community gumbo, Southwest Louisiana offers an inimitable way of celebrating the festive holiday.
The second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the United States takes place in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country, and includes parties, pageants, private balls (even a public one, too), parades—just about everything a New Orleans Mardi Gras offers but without as much pomp and ceremony, or as many parades and traffic jams and big city headaches. Although Lafayette attracts close to 200,000 tourists annually for Mardi Gras, visitors won’t have to battle a million strangers for hotel rooms, parking spaces and doubloons. This city’s Mardi Gras madness is perfect for the whole family.
A popular way that tourists and locals alike enjoy the Mardi Gras fete in Lafayette is to set up camp close to the parade route. Some revelers pitch mobile homes and tents, while others choose simpler methods, like assembling barbecue pits and lawn chairs close to the curb.
In Lafayette Parish, the Mardi Gras tradition began in 1869 when the first carnival ball was held there. In 1897, the first Mardi Gras dignitary, King Attakapas, was crowned. Then in 1934, the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association was formed to plan and coordinate local Mardi Gras events. That year Queen Evangeline and King Gabriel became the city’s official Mardi Gras royalty.
If you happen to be in Lafayette prior to Mardi Gras, the city’s civic and carnival organizations ring in the season with formal balls. The most celebrated of all is the annual Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association Pageant and Ball, held this year on Mardi Gras day in the newly renovated Heymann Performing Arts Center and Auditorium. This is the only Mardi Gras ball open to the general public.
Elsewhere about town, local nightclubs present some of the best local acts all year in Lafayette during Mardi Gras season. Not to be missed, for example, is Zachary Richard’s annual costumed Mardi Gras Eve gig on Monday, February 26, at Grant Street Dancehall. For a complete listing of entertainment during Mardi Gras, pick up a copy of The Times of Acadiana, a free weekly news magazine serving Acadiana.
For family attractions, you might want to visit Lafayette’s Acadian Village. The Village is a living folklife museum that hosts carnival celebrations all day long with the whole family in mind. Festivities include zydeco and Cajun bands, a homemade costume contest, a mask making demonstration, Cajun and Creole food, and even “La Petite Poule Gras,” a take-off of the adult “Courir du Mardi Gras” that gives children a chance to catch a “fat little chicken” for prizes. Later in the afternoon a re-enactment of the “Courir du Mardi Gras” (“Mardi Gras Run”) and a Krewe des Foux parade highlight the day’s activities.
Mardi Gras activities like balls and pageants and floats are very colorful in Lafayette. But to truly celebrate Mardi Gras Cajun style, you’ve got to get out of the city and go chase chickens on horseback with a belly full of beer and ears full of a hot fiddlin’ Cajun band. Traditionally known as “Le Courir du Mardi Gras” (“Mardi Gras Run”), this local custom, which takes place in small towns and villages of Acadiana, just may surpass the Crescent City in Mardi Gras madness. For this particular Mardi Gras celebration, you’ll find no conventional gaudy costume balls, no jazzy parade bands, glittering floats or souvenirs. A true Cajun Mardi Gras is about making a gumbo and proving one’s manhood.
In rural villages around Acadiana, custom calls for Cajun men—or young men who are making a sort of rite of passage—to gather together on horseback early Mardi Gras morning in brilliant homemade costumes. There’s always a Cajun band and a flatbed wagon with plenty of beer (for those old enough to get drunk) for the day’s ride. The masked horsemen, under the guidance of a sober unmasked “capitaine,” ride from farmhouse to farmhouse on a 15-20 mile-stretch ride, collecting live chickens (the rule is all chickens must be chased on foot), rice and vegetables for a gumbo the womenfolk will prepare back in town hours later.
Once back in town, for those riders who can still stand, there’s a community gumbo and a fais do do (street dance). The Courir du Mardi Gras is one of the local traditions that makes a Cajun Mardi Gras magical. Once a rural-kept secret, today thousands of tourists worldwide have become turned onto chasing chickens and having too much “good fun” in places like Church Point, Mamou or Eunice.
MARDI GRAS IN LAFAYETTE
9 a.m.-5 p.m.: Day-long activities at Acadian Village, an authentic replica of a rural Acadian bayou settlement. The village is located off Ridge Road in Lafayette. Festivities include a costume contest, mask-making demonstrations, Cajun and zydeco music, gumbo, boudin, cracklin’, and an old-fashioned boucherie. The day’s highlight is a re-enactment of the “Courir du Mardi Gras.” Admission price. For more information call 318-981-2364.
3 p.m.: Children’s Krewe Parade, downtown Lafayette.
6 p.m.: Krewe of Bonaparte Parade, downtown to Cajundome.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26
6 p.m.: Queen’s Parade, downtown Lafayette.
MARDI GRAS DAY, FEBRUARY 27
9 a.m.: Costume contest at King’s Reviewing Stand on Jefferson Street, downtown Lafayette.
10 a.m.: King Gabriel’s Parade, downtown Lafayette. This is a 14-float parade whose theme is Cartoon Cavalcade. It is immediately followed by Lafayette Mardi Gras Association Parade, the area’s only black parading krewe.
Evening: Krewe of Lafayette Parade, downtown Lafayette. This is the last parade of the day and is open to anyone.
7 p.m.: Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association pageant and ball. Pageant starts at 7 p.m. and ball at 8 p.m. Ball is open to the general public. Tickets are available through the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, 804 E. St. Mary St. For more information call 318-233-2705.
MARDI GRAS IN ST. MARTINVILLE
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25
9 a.m.: “La Grande Boucherie Des Cajuns,” at City Park, located on Main Street or La. Hwy. 31. This is a traditional Cajun boucherie (hog slaughtering) with live music, good food and fun. Bands start at 9 a.m. No glass containers or ice chests allowed.
MARDI GRAS IN MAMOU-IOTA
MARDI GRAS DAY, FEBRUARY 27
7 a.m.: Traditional run on horseback begins. Revelers arrive downtown at 1 p.m. Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival has daylong festivities. Festival located in downtown Iota (halfway between Lafayette and Lake Charles. I-10 Exit #76, take LA 1120 North 6 miles to LA 98, left 1 1/2 miles to Iota). Festival includes folk crafts, prairie Cajun foods and “Tee Mamou Mardi Gras.” Seventy or more in number will arrive at the festival at about 1 p.m., colorful and feisty, singing their 300-year-old European chant in French, wearing handmade screen masks, capuchons (hats) and costumes. This is the last remaining group so dressed.
MARDI GRAS IN EUNICE
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26
“Mardi Gras – Variety Within a Culture,” presented at the Liberty Theatre in downtown Eunice. The show will recreate the tradition of celebrating Mardi Gras as done in the country and is surprisingly close to similar celebrations in 18th Century France.
MARDI GRAS DAY, FEBRUARY 27
7 a.m.: The traditional Mardi Gras Run. Revelers on horseback meet at the National Guard Armory and ride through the countryside gathering their neighbors’ chickens for the traditional Mardi Gras gumbo.
9 a.m.: In downtown Eunice. Children’s Costume Contest, immediately followed by a Young People’s Cajun and Zydeco Contest.
Throughout the day: Ongoing in the streets is live music and food.
2:30 p.m.: Liberty Truck Parade (floats)
3 p.m.: Revelers on horseback end up at City Hall followed by a fais do do (street dance).
For more information call the Eunice Mayor’s office at 318-457-7389.