Courir de Mardi Gras traditions date back to medieval France

Mardi Gras, it seems, can be a little bit country or a little bit rock ’n’ roll, depending on where you live.

In rural St. Landry Parish, festivities center around Courir de Mardi Gras, meaning to “run Mardi Gras.” Eunice, in the heart of the parish, is a great town to meet locals who participate in these annual runs, where they ride horses, chase chickens and dress up in flamboyant costumes.

At the Prairie Acadian Culture Center in Eunice, National Park ranger Vincent Fontenot says Cajun Mardi Gras dates from medieval France. During hard times, poor people covered their faces with ashes or cloth and went begging for food. Eventually the custom turned into a Mardi Gras. Unlike the lavish balls and elaborate parades in urban areas, the courir reflects rural customs of farm life.

“Only here on the prairie does the Mardi Gras celebration follow the tradition of gathering ingredients for a big community gumbo,” says Fontenot. “People travel by horseback and wagons to beg for chickens and other items. It’s very family oriented.”

The “run,” he says, is a game.

“It’s a play, a spoof,” Fontenot says. “It’s normal society turned upside down.”

Eunice residents Lance and Kelly Pitre, both LSU graduates and parents to five children, consider Courir de Mardi Gras a vital part of their family life. Everyone — Matthew, 18; Heidi, 16; Alain, 14; Camille, 11; and Nicolas, 7 — participates in the annual celebrations.

“We always were a part of Mardi Gras,” says Lance Pitre, who grew up in the Pa-Ta-Sa neighborhood. “I don’t remember a time not doing it. Dad always held a boucherie and did a run every year. When I became a teenager, I began to run with the men.”

He has participated in the Eunice Mardi Gras run and the L’Anse Maigre run north of Eunice, and Kelly Pitre, who grew up in the Swords community, has participated in Church Point’s courir.

The whole family now participates in the Faquetaigue (fashioned from an Indian term ) run. A few years ago, Lance Pitre started the run with friends, including Joel Savoy, Linzay Young, Jesse Brown and Lucius Fontenot.

“We started it because many places have moved away from old traditions,” he explains.

Kelly Pitre sews her family’s costumes, which include fanciful conical capuchons (hats) and decorative masks. She shops in thrift stores for pajamas and hospital scrubs, and uses multi-colored scraps for ruffles on the costumes. Sometimes, she adds bells.

“You can get it done in a night,” she says, laughing, and adding that costumes are sewn, glued and safety pinned. “It’s a Wal-Mart midnight special.”

She says the ideas is to show people “that’s what Mardi Gras is all about in the countryside. We travel through farmer’s fields near our home. And, we don’t use amplified music.”

Guests can ride along in wagons, but they must wear a costume and mask.

The main objective is still catching a live chicken, which is thrown to the crowd by a farmer. A few people still follow the old method of killing the chicken and making a gumbo from scratch. However, Lance Pitre says that today, because of the availability of prepared foods and time management, gumbo ingredients are gathered ahead of time. Live chickens, he says, are used for the courir’s chase, where the goal is just to catch the chicken. After the run, chickens often go to people who want to adopt them.

“The biggest focus is on the run itself,” says Kelly Pitre. “Our older sons’ goal is to take down their dad each year and roll him in the mud.”

Mardi Gras is also about happy Pitre family memories. Matthew remembers being scared as a youngster by his Aunt Laura wearing a winged costume made with goose feathers. He also talks about having caught the chicken five times, and he’s still counting. Heidi recalls a parade at Pa-Ta-Sa when so many beads were placed around her neck that she almost choked. Camille’s favorite memory is watching revelers trying to get a chicken placed in a box atop a greased pole in a farm yard. Alain still talks about being dragged through the mud on a rainy Mardi Gras run. Young Nicolas grins and shows off his favorite costume — a black Batman costume made by his mom.

As parents, the Pitres encourage their youngsters to share their family fun and memories with others.

“What I enjoy most,” says Lance Pitre, “is really sharing our Mardi Gras traditions with people from around the world.”