The Many Traditions of Mardi Gras in Louisiana – Each year one of the most rambunctious events to take place in the United States is the celebration of Mardi Gras
New Orleans is often viewed as the home of Mardi Gras in the United States, due in no small part to its historical roots attached to this tradition. Many of Louisiana’s residents have creole backgrounds, and a good number have ancestral lineage throughout the Caribbean as they descended from Haitians and other Creoles who fled to New Orleans and Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries.
If you visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras you’ll find that the city is split in its celebrations of this tradition. Walk down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and you’ll find a Mardi Gras celebration that has been commercialised for the masses. The drinking and revelry that takes place here isn’t accurately reflective of the true celebration. Journey a few blocks to the west along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, and you’ll find the true celebration of Mardi Gras that the locals indulge in. Floats and parades featuring Mardi Gras krewes are taken seriously in this part of town.
Mardi Gras is like any celebration, though, in that it has various forms. A group of revelers from Grand Marais, Louisiana, have their only traditional creole Mardi Gras celebrated in rural Louisiana. This is the story of their Mardi Gras.
Built on Rural Traditions
In this, Grand Marais, corner of Louisiana, south of New Iberia and west of New Orleans in the rustic Iberia Parish, Mardi Gras is celebrated in a form that has been passed down through generations. Jerrod Guillory is a local Creole comedian, but also a member of one of the groups that organises the floats and parades carrying on the tradition of this pastoral Mardi Gras festival. As best as his group can tell, the local populace around Grand Marais formed their own Mardi Gras festival in the 1800s.
Much like the well-known krewes of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations, no one alive today had a hand in forming the groups that lead this rural Mardi Gras festival. As Mr. Guillory points out:
“Now we’ve crossed groups because the group that Mr. Eugene has, when I was a kid, I was in their group. Then I wind up starting my own. But all of it comes from them and their fathers. So nobody under the age of … nobody alive, started any of this, we just continued what we were talking about.”
How Far Back can it be Traced?
Mr. Guillory can walk you through the group known as the “senior people” of this rural Mardi Gras in Grand Marais. There’s T-Joe, Mr. Gerald, and Mr. Othello as senior individuals today. These people were merely torch bearers in a tradition that predates themselves. The celebration in this part of Louisiana was formed in the 1800s, and future generations have taken up the torch. They don’t change anything at the heart of Mardi Gras or the Grand Marais version of the celebration.
Instead, each year they build their costumes and compete for braging rights. Mr. Guillory admits that the current generation brings their own flare to it, adding modernised themes to Mardi Gras. When it comes to the tradition of Grand Marais’s Mardi Gras, though, the past is meant to be preserved and celebrated. So, just how does this community celebrate Mardi Gras?
“It is a very important and it is an extreme tradition, (going) house to house, is what we’ve coined it but we dress up in costume and we visit, we walk up to random houses throughout the neighbourhood, sometime we knock, sometime we don’t. We walk in and whoever’s in there, we are in costume with masks and the general population of the community is kind of set up, (everyone) is remotely expecting us, so they’ll cook and they’ll have liquor in their cabinets, and if it’s not out on the counter we know them well enough to know where the liquor is, we go and get it.”
Members of the community here have followed the same traditions for years in their Mardi Gras festivities. Mothers prepare Creole food to have in each house, and only the best liquor and wine are served. Everything is homemade and the best recipes of the community come to the forefront as the people of Grand Marais showcase their hospitality.
Well, mothers and grandmothers have always sewed the costumes for their husbands, sons, and grandchildren. You collect your own clothes and give them to your mom or grandma. Mr. Guillory has an explanation behind the costume sewing as well:
“Now, as a sidebar to what they’re talking about, there’s a tradition that they all had because of course, his mother sewed his, his grandmother sewed his, and nobody wanted anyone to know who they were. So what you did was when you got together, he gave him his clothes, and he gave him his clothes and mask so no one could follow who they were. When the females saw the costume they made, assumed it was their son or husband, it wasn’t.”
We come together actually the Friday before Mardi Gras and we start a tradition of a five day reunion
The History of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras may be seen in the present day as a time of revelry and consumption, at worst when commercialised, or as simply a cultural phenomenon. However, the roots of Mardi Gras are deeply connected to the Catholic church and the traditions of those who were raised in that faith throughout North America and the Caribbean. The celebration is easily summed up by Mr. Guillory:
“The actual reason behind Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras is a very left-handed Catholic holiday. The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Ash Wednesday begins Lent, you take penitence, give up drinking, smoking, whatever you do as a penance. So Mardi Gras was kind of designed to be a last party.”
For the folks in Grand Marais, Mardi Gras isn’t just one day. It’s not a singular celebration that takes place for the entertainment and debauchery of tourists. The celebration here is closer to home, and closer to the heart. On the Friday before Mardi Gras, the people of Grand Marais launch the start of what they consider a five-day reunion:
“We come together, actually, the Friday before Mardi Gras and we basically start a tradition of a five day reunion. We don’t think of it as a party like New Orleans Mardi Gras, It’s really been the family all come together from all parts of the country when they moved away, it’s just the one time of year we get together, we make costumes as a family, we go out and compete as a family in the costume competitions, every night for four nights, and then the last night we finish it off with our parade, our celebration, Mardi Gras celebration. I think it’s real unique in this community because of that aspect and I think that tradition went on for so many years.”
When it comes to costumes and décor, the people and groups celebrating the Mardi Gras in Grand Marais have their own approach too. In terms of costume competitions and king or queen of Mardi Gras, things have to change every year. Each year there is a competition for costumes, and like any good competition there are rules. The winners each year have to retire the outfit they used and find a different costume for the next year. Same goes for kings and queens of Mardi Gras, who must retire or at the very least sit out a year before earning the honor again. Additionally, each group or club has its own focus for costumes and floats:
“The Club I (Jerrod. Guillory) am involved in, we more look at what we call Original. We also, LDH the club I’m in, started to compete in the original category, the original Mardi Gras, which is the bedon category. So we’ve had made mimics of what their fathers actually started with. This is an original style bedon, now this one is maybe 20 years old versus others, that’s 50 and 60 years old but made in the same pattern. This is a high cone hat and a screen mask that we talked about earlier that Mr. Gerald taught us to make. So each club usually tends to focus on a particular category, now some of them may dabble in more but each group kind of specialises in one. Our club specialises in the old fashion bedon and what we call most original and we may make an ugly suit. His club is original and ugly.”
Creole and Religion Come Together
For the people of Grand Marais, the Mardi Gras celebration has a combination of creole and religious aspects to it. The entire event, from planning to execution and the final hours, is a community event. Everyone gets involved, from the children to the adults and senior members of the community. Word of mouth is the major form of promotion for the event, and a local club known as Mon Ami hosts parties for the Mardi Gras celebration. However, the religious aspect of Catholicism is still important to the entire celebration. They still celebrate all the festivities of Mardi Gras up until the last day, and get ready for the upcoming Lent season. Mr. Guillory and others liken it to other celebrations of Mardi Gras:
“We have a real strong Catholic community here in Grand Marais that has always been part of that community. We have those beliefs, yeah. In Mexico and Brazil, the parade, it used to be the station of the cross, it started as a religious celebration, that’s it foundation hundreds of years ago and that’s how it started and they walk the streets with the procession, the religious procession, leading up to Easter. So you have the station of the cross and you walk down the streets on Good Friday and then you have church and then you have your Ash Wednesday and then you have your celebration for Easter Sunday.”
At the end of the day, the celebration comes down to basics. On the one hand, the people of rural Grand Marais celebrate the religious aspects of Mardi Gras. On the other, they view it as their last chance to really live it up before Lent, and a time when they will spend 40 days without something they once loved.