Mardi Gras in Louisiana: Carnivals Between the City and the Country

From the first days of January and Mardi Gras, held on February 25 this year, Louisiana celebrates a French tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages – the carnival. The line-up includes floats and bead necklaces in New Orleans, and masked horse riders and Cajun songs in the countryside.

This is the world’s biggest show enjoyed for free every year by millions of visitors. In New Orleans, the festivities kick off at 8 am sharp on the morning of Mardi Gras. Each carnival company (or “krewe”) organizes its own parade. Eleven processions will snake across the different neighborhoods of the city on February 25. They include Rex, one of the oldest krewes in New Orleans, founded in 1872, and Zulu, named in homage to African warriors. These two groups will parade through Uptown while Argus, Elks Jefferson, and Jefferson will march through the Metairie neighborhood.

Each krewe has its own theme but they all share two invariable elements – Venetian-style masks decorated with feathers and beads, and “throws,” the term for the trinkets, toys, fake coins, and colorful bead necklaces tossed from the floats into the crowd. Gathered along the parade route, onlookers stretch out their hands and shout : “Throw me something, mister!”

Ray Escoffier is a descendent of a family originally from Lyon and now lives in Gretna, a small town in the suburbs of New Orleans. Interviewed by France-Amérique in 2012, he said, “Every year, my mother’s family, who lived in Belle Rose [a small town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge], came with us to watch the parade. We would have a big picnic then go to Canal Street in the city’s French Quarter, and us kids would try to catch as many bead necklaces as possible.”

“Throws are the currency of Carnival,” wrote Lissa Capo, historian at the University of New Orleans, in 2011. “And Carnival is a large part of the currency of the city.” The celebrations attracted 10.45 million visitors to New Orleans in 2016, generating $7.41 billion for the city. After Mardi Gras, everyone goes home with handfuls of necklaces as souvenirs. And there are still beads found in the oak trees lining the city’s streets in the months following the final parades.

Cajun Mardi Gras in Southern Louisiana

The atmosphere is very different outside New Orleans. There are neither beads nor necklaces in Lafayette, Breaux Bridge, Mamou, Opelousas, Eunice, and Houma, in the heart of the French-speaking Cajun country where customs inherited from medieval carnivals are still very present. On the big day, the “Courir de Mardi Gras” begins at dawn. In this ceremony, masked horse riders would traditionally go from house to house begging for the ingredients to make a gumbo, a local stew specialty.

Courir de Mardi Gras in Mamou, February 2018. © David Simpson

And the tradition has stuck. Today, participants run after a chicken while a zydeco orchestra plays a typical festive song called La danse du Mardi Gras: “Les Mardi Gras s’en vient de tout partout, Tout le tour autour du moyeu, Ça passe un fois par an, Demander la charité, Quand même si c’est une patate, Une patate et des gratons. This little-known heritage featured in American television series Treme and True Detective, as well as in one of the last episodes of Parts Unknown, the show presented by the late chef Anthony Bourdain.

Courir de Mardi Gras in Mamou, February 2019. © David Simpson

“The country Mardi Gras comes from the way Mardi Gras was celebrated in France in the rural section as opposed to the urban carnival,” says Barry Jean Ancelet, historian and folklorist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s an early springtime renewal and is essentially a way for communities to celebrate and reunite.”