Down Life’s Highway
Mardi Gras–Cajuns, Faith and Changes
I remember back many years ago celebrating Mardi Gras, even before I knew what it meant. It was a special day for us south Louisiana Cajuns. Most communities had their own way of celebrating Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten season begins. Large communities like New Orleans and Lafayette held a carnival with hundreds of costumed children–clowns, ballerinas–large parades and fanfare. Few of us rural people ever witnessed or attended these festivals.
For country folk, Mardi Gras day began early in the morning with masked horseback riders going through the countryside collecting chickens for a big gumbo that would be enjoyed later in the day. It was a day filled with laughter, fun, pranks and a lot of mischief and games. Youngsters wore paper bag masks decorated with crayons.
The men always came on their finest horses and often left with the long hair on their horses tails cut off. The boys responsible also put red pepper on the dance floor. That drove all the dancers noses crazy. Hiding boys rolled with laughter. By then the adults were well juiced, mostly imbibing home brew. King cakes were unheard of.
While the gumbo was simmering, a made-up band struck up the music. I recall Mardi Gras at John Thibeaux’s place way out in the country. The gumbo was brewed on an open fire. The women did the chores while the men cut up with each other or played music. There was always an accordion, a fiddle, a harmonica and anything that made a rhythmic noise, scrub board, upside down tub, spoons–two of them upside down, slapping together on the knee and the free cupped hand. Thibeaux had a big room and all the furniture was moved outdoors leaving a makeshift dance floor.
The party lasted all day. The young played games, hide and seek and others. On most Saturday afternoons and evenings a dance, called a fais-do-do, was held, but this was bigger. The celebrating of this day was a Cajun tradition. School closed and business came to a halt and still does. Mardi Gras is instilled in the heart of every Cajun who ever took part.
Today many communities sponsor celebrations, and they’re getting bigger and bigger. Orange, Port Arthur and Galveston events are growing every year.
I recall the first Mardi Gras celebration I attended in New Orleans. I was amazed. A far cry from our simple country affair.
The day after Mardi Gras, the Lenten season begins. Lent is the Catholic season of fasting and penitence, and for 40-days we Catholic kids took part in many religious ceremonies beginning with Ash Wednesday, when the priest marked our foreheads with ashes as a symbol of repentance and continuing through Easter.
On Friday, school would let out an hour early and most of us walked the mile and a half to Mary Magdalene church in Abbeville for service. All the Catholic students walking two or three abreast. I never thought about it before but I don’t know what non-Catholic students did. Went home probably. The Stations of the Cross, we called it the Way of the Cross, filled the church to capacity. Night services were held throughout Lent, a beautiful mass.
Cajuns are a fun-loving people, but they were extremely serious about their religion, no dancing, drinking or partying in any form during Lent was the order of the day, all 40 of them. Fridays were always meatless and we always gave up something for Lent and stuck to it. We also believed that if you dug in the ground on Good Friday, you would see Christ’s blood, so we did not dig, not even for worms. It meant you didn’t work on Good Friday.
Attending those old traditional Lent services always spiritually moved this Cajun kid. So strong, in fact, that I even considered the priesthood. (I can hear the laughter.) My Grandma Availa instilled in all of us a strong feeling for Christianity. Even though my life has taken me in many directions, down many a winding roads, some not so good, one thing I never lost sight of is my belief in God. The Lenten season of many years ago are still deeply embedded in me.
I believe a person doesn’t often get too far from their roots. Two things a Cajun kid was made to do were respect his elders and attend church. There’s not enough of either today. The upbringing by tough disciplinarians often surfaced to make me right my course. It’s a time long past that will never be again. Change has never come easy to me unless it’s gradual.
As the years have come and gone, the Mardi Gras season has taken on a whole new dimension. It’s fun for all, with large parades and balls, trinkets, and beads and wonderful floats that take a year to assemble. It’s great. And it’s not just Catholics who enjoy and partake in the celebration. I’m astonished at really how far the simple fun day of my youth has come, now embraced and embracing so many.
Horseback raiders, a few “stolen” chickens, gumbo, Cajun music and home brew. Those old Cajun people would never believe it if they showed up for one of today’s affairs, like the one in Orange last Saturday.
One indelible Mardi Gras memory is John Thibeaux’s old mother chewed tobacco. I hid under the house. She sat on the porch. As I crawled out, she spit a mouthful of fresh tobacco juice that landed squarely on the back of my neck. For years I was razzed about that.
Mardi Gras, it’s come a long way all right. Even the spirit of the Lenten season is not what it used to be, but then nothing is.
It doesn’t hurt to look back down Life’s Highway every now and then and grab hold of your roots, smile and press on.
Back in the 1930’s, Cajuns were looked down on, discriminated against, so most Cajuns in the 13 parishes stayed to themselves. As Cajuns moved to other areas, Port Arthur, etc., they brought their food customs and traditions with them. Today, I’m proud to see that the Cajun way has been adopted by so many in the rest of the country. Acadians are no longer ashamed to admit their heritage and are now proud to say they are Cajun.