This week, we traveled to Baton Rouge and sat down with Dr. Carolyn Ware, a folklorist and an associate professor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University, to talk about the tradition of Cajun Mardi Gras. Carolyn has spent years talking to Cajun Mardi Gras communities about their traditions, and, no, it’s not just a knockoff of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Carolyn educates us on what Cajun Mardi Gras is, who participates and why it’s still important.
During Cajun Mardi Gras, townspeople dress up, disguising their identities, and travel through the countryside knocking on neighbors’ doors for handouts, such as food or money. If the hosts ask for a dance, they oblige. The reward is usually something that will go into the community’s gumbo at the end of the night, like rice, sausage grease, or chicken. Carolyn says if the costumes, door-knocks, and treats sound familiar, it’s because Cajun Mardi Gras comes from the same mid-winter traditions that birthed trick-or-treating.
Carolyn paints a picture of Cajun Mardi Gras: A sheriff's car leads the procession with flashing headlights. Wagons of men and women, often separated by gender, follow behind. Mardi Gras dress in bright, pajama-like outfits, scary masks, and French-inspired conical hats called capuchons. Musicians or a three-piece band accompany the group playing traditional Cajun Mardi Gras songs.
Carolyn became interested in Cajun Mardi Gras because all of the scholarship she read positioned it as a hypermasculine event. Majority-women Cajun Mardi Gras do exist in Louisiana, but Carolyn argues that women have always been central to the tradition. They design and make the costumes and capuchons, and they cook the gumbo at the end of the night. Women-run Cajun Mardi Gras became more popular in the 1950s and ‘60s after World War II as gender roles began to change around the country. Men are still the captains in these celebrations so that women can have a free night. “Women wanted to cut loose and be silly,” Carolyn says. “They’re moms the rest of the time. On this one day, they wanted to be the ones that cut up.” She’s fascinated with how women think about their role in Cajun Mardi Gras, and with how they perform it. Carolyn mentions that the women’s suits and masks are the ones catching the imaginations of outsiders.
Cajun Mardi Gras has faced its share of criticism as it becomes more visible and as attitudes around social issues and gender change. Carolyn says Cajun Mardi Gras is about pushing boundaries. Men still dress in stereotypical and exaggerated feminine styles. Some runs still have a blackface character or Native caricature. Gina asks if there’s a spectrum of opinions around the more problematic parts of the tradition, and Carolyn affirms that there is. As rural towns become more diverse and more integrated, some changes are occurring. For the most, however, Carolyn says Mardi Gras runs don’t want outsiders telling them what to do with their traditions.