Lafayette (LA) Sunday Advertiser, January 5, 1997

Mardi Gras in Acadiana

In Galveston, New Orleans and Lafayette, Mardi Gras is known as the biggest, most colorful, noisiest celebration in the world.

Carnival time in Acadiana combines Cajun magic and Mardi Gras mystery to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for revelers of all areas.

The Religious History of Mardi Gras

Traditionally, the term Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday refers to the Roman Catholic religious holiday which occurs on the eve of the Lenten season, a time of sacrifice and fasting for Catholics. Historically many Catholic cultures have developed a celebration of merrymaking before entering the Lenten season which begins on Ash Wednesday. This time of celebration has evolved into the Mardi Gras carnival season that is celebrated today.

Too magical to limit to one day, the carnival season officially opens on the Epiphany twelve days after Christmas and ends on Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras Day.

Lafayette's Mardi Gras

During the weeks before Mardi Gras, Lafayette's civic and carnival organizations ring in the season with formal balls sponsored by carnival krewes who choose their own kings and queens. The Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association Pageant and Ball, held Mardi Gras night at the Heymann Center for the Performing Arts, is the only ball open to the general public. Tickets to the pageant and ball are free and may be obtained at the Lafayette Visitor Information Center, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and at the Heymann Center for the Performing Arts Box Office.

The first formal Mardi Gras ball and parade in Lafayette dates back to 1869. In 1897, King Attakapas, the first Mardi Gras king, was crowned, and the first organized parade was held in Lafayette. KingAttakapas rode into Lafayette on a Southern Pacific train, which had been decorated to look like a royal throne, then proceeded to lead the Mardi Gras parade. Formal Mardi Gras balls and parades after 1897 seemed to come and go until 1934 when the Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association was formed by representatives from civic and service organizations to ensure that Lafayette would always have a Mardi Gras celebration. Today as in 1934, Queen Evangeline and King Gabriel who symbolize the Acadian sweethearts separated during the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in Longfellow's Evangeline, are reunited each year at Mardi Gras to rule over the Mardi Gras festivities.

Acadiana's Courir de Mardi Gras

The rural Mardi Gras celebration, the Courir de Mardi Gras, dates back to the earliest days of the area's settlement and is still considered a rite of passage for many young men of the area. In the small towns of Eunice, Church Point, Ville Platte, Iota, Elton, and Mamou, you can still see and participate in the Mardi Gras traditions that have been followed for hundreds of years.

With its roots firmly in the medieval tradition of ceremonial begging, bands of masked and costumed horseback riders roam the country side "begging" for ingredients for their communal gumbo. "Le capitaine," a caped but unmasked captain, stops his revellers at a distance while he approaches with a white flag and asks permission for his riders to enter the owners' property. If permission is granted, the captain lowers his white flag and the riders charge towards the house. There, they dismount and proceed to dance and sing for live chickens and other donations such as rice, onions, and flour to be used in the gumbo. The captain and his group of masked riders return to town in the late afternoon with their loot. The day's festivities usually end with a fais-do-do and lots of gumbo for Mardi Gras revelers.

When is Mardi Gras?

The fluctuating date of Mardi Gras was established by the Catholic Church which designed the Gregorian calendar with a fixed date for Christmas but with moveable dates for other religious holidays. Easter which can fall on any Sunday from March 23 to April 25, is set to happen when the first Sunday after the full moon which follows the Spring Equinox. Mardi Gras is always scheduled 46 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus six Sundays). The carnival season officially opens on the Epiphany twelve days after Christmas and ends on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras Day), the day before Ash Wednesday.

The Colors of Mardi Gras

In 1872, King Rex, the king of New Orleans' carnival, selected the official colors of Mardi Gras (purple, gold and green). They were probably originally selected simply because they look good together. Rex assigned a meaning to the colors in 1892 for his parade entitled Symbolism of Colors: purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold signifies power.

Mardi Gras Krewes

A Mardi Gras Krewe is the membership organization for a parade. Krewes also get together throughout the year for the Coronation Ball (where the Maids, Dukes and King are announced) and Mardi Gras Ball or Tableau (where the Krewe usually appear in their parade costumes). Undisputed as the favorite event of the Krewes is the parade itself, where riders throw trinkets to throngs of people calling. "Throw me something, mister!"

Throw me something, Mister

"Throw Me Something Mister" is a shout that can be heard as the parade floats roll past. Parade-goers will use any technique to get the attention of the float riders--so they can go home with more "throws" than anyone else. Throws are inexpensive trinkets tossed from floats by costumed and masked krewe members. The most popular throws include doubloons, plastic cups and plastic Mardi Gras beads (necklaces). Doubloons are aluminum coin-line objects usually bearing the krewe's crest on one side and the parade's theme on the other side.

King Cake

The history of the King Cake began in 12th century France where the cake would be baked on the eve of January 6 to celebrate the visit to the Christ Child by the three Kings. A small token was hidden in the cake as a surprise for the finder.

French settlers brought the custom to Louisiana in the 18th century where it remained associated with the Epiphany until the 19th century when it became a more elaborate Mardi Gras custom.

In New Orleans, the first cake of the season was served on January 6. A small ceramic figurine of a baby was hidden in the cake. Whoever found the baby was allowed to choose a mock court and host the next King Cake party the following week (weekly cake parties were held until Mardi Gras ).

The cake is circular in shape and richly decorated in bright colors representing a bejeweled crown to remind us of the three Kings. The baby hidden in the cake speaks to the fact that the three Kings had a difficult time finding the Christ Child and of the fine gifts they brought.

King cakes are available at bakeries all over South Louisiana, but only January 6 through Mardi Gras Day.

Copyright ©1997 by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser. Reprinted with permission..
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