Childhood Memories of Mardi Gras and Lenten Season
There were no big balls in Abbeville, no gown clad women or tuxedo wearing men, no kings, no queens.
Celebrating Mardi Gras has changed a lot since I was a boy living on the outskirts of Abbeville, a small Cajun town in South Louisiana. It was a special day for us Cajuns. Most communities had their own way of celebrating Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten season begins. The large city of New Orleans had a big carnival with headdresses, costumed children, clowns, ballerinas, etc. and with a large parade and a lot of fanfare. The only other town that celebrated, but on a smaller scale, was Lafayette. Few of us rural people ever witnessed these festivals. I was a junior in high school before I made my first big New Orleans Mardi Gras.
For country folks, Mardi Gras day began early in the morning with masked horseback riders going through the countryside collecting chickens for a big gumbo to be enjoyed later in the day. It was a day filled with laughter, fun, games and pranks.
The men always rode their finest horses and often left with the tail cut off. The teenage boys also put red pepper on the dance floor. Hiding, the boys rolled with laughter as the partiers sneezed and wiped tears from their burning eyes. By then the adult men were well juiced on home brew that had been prepared days ahead of time.
While the gumbo was simmering, a made up band furnished the music. The gumbo was brewed on an open fire using the chickens the men had gathered and the women had plucked and prepared. The women always did the chores except when a big iron pot was cooking cracklins. The men attended to that. The lard would later be used for soap makings. Too many hot cracklins could very well serve as a purgative. Even today, I can still taste how good those big, meaty cracklins were. The band always had an accordion, fiddle, and a harmonica, a bass fiddle made with a washtub, string and broomstick. Someone always played the scrub board, while others played the spoons, two big spoons were bounced off a leg, clinking together. I don’t ever recall seeing a guitar.
John Thibodeaux had a big house and the furniture was moved outdoors and the living room became a dance floor. The party lasted all day and into the night. When the weather was bad, the celebration moved into someone’s barn.
The youngsters played games like hide and seek, marbles, lagging washers, skipping rope, playing hopscotch and others. Older boys hid behind the barn to smoke corn silk or grape vines. I tried it once. My tongue burned for a week.
The celebration was a Cajun tradition. Schools were closed and businesses shut down. Mardi Gras is instilled in the hearts of every Cajun kid who ever took part. Mardi Gras was only a one-day celebration back then. Today, Mardi Gras has taken on a whole new dimension. Many communities, like Orange, who had a big parade this weekend, Port Arthur, Galveston and many others communities have large balls and parades, with wonderful floats that take months to assemble. It’s not just Catholics who participate. I’m amazed at really how far the simple fun day of my youth has come and how it embraces so many. Now there are Krewes, sequined gown clad women and men in tuxedos. Often, as in Port Arthur, the celebration last several days. Our masked horseback riders, a few stolen chickens, gumbo, Cajun music and homebrew has turned into a big, commercial event. Those old Cajun people of my youth would never believe how high society their one-day celebration has become. Mardi Gras celebrating started by Cajuns in the 1800’s.
The day after Fat Tuesday marked the start of the Lenten season with Ash Wednesday. The priest marked our foreheads with ashes as a symbol of repentance and Lent continued until Easter Sunday. The season of fasting and penance went on for 40 days. Catholic kids took part in many religious activities. On Friday school would let out an hour early and school kids would walk to St. Mary Magdalene Church for the Stations of the Cross service. We called it “Way of the Cross.” Night services were also held throughout Lent.
Cajuns are fun loving people but they are extremely serious about their religion. No dancing, drinking or partying in any form during Lent. That’s the way it was in my youth. Friday’s were always meatless. You didn’t dig in the earth on Good Friday, not even for worms. My grandmother Availa said you would see the blood of Christ. She instilled in me a strong feeling for Christianity. Life has taken me down many winding roads and some bad paths but I never lost sight of my belief in God. Those Lenten seasons of long ago are deeply embedded in me. I believe if a child is raised in a Christian faith, he never gets too far from those roots. Two things Cajun kids were made to do was respect their elders and attend church. Maybe there is not enough of either today.
Mardi Gras, in my youth, was a longtime ago. I’ve traveled a lot of miles down life’s highway since those early days in that little Cajun town. All the good people of those Mardi Gras and Lenten days are now gone. Come Mardi Gras day next Tuesday, March 8, in my mind I’ll reflect and remember their faces; recall their names; and thank God for those good and gentle people in my hometown. My travels and trials have never erased those great memories, when times were way different and life was simple. We had no Mardi Gras kings and queens but we had each other and looked after each other.