Travel: Destination Mardi Gras Traditions
The Chicken Run & Beaucoup Bead-Throwing Parades, Mardi Gras Celebrations In Friendly SW Louisiana
The decadence and debauchery of one wild night in New Orleans is what most people refer to as Mardi Gras. But the annual Fat Tuesday merriment is much more than what the Big Easy has to offer.
It is a cultural event embraced by friendly towns down South and picturesque parishes throughout Louisiana. Dozens of communities hold their own traditional celebrations, with glittery royal galas and a multitude of bead-throwing parades. All good fun for the entire family– unlike raunchy N’awlins.
So many Mardi Gras parties, so little time. But if you want to see the best of the best, and get back to the Cajun roots of the festival, head to Southwest Louisiana. Calcasieu Parish (the Lake Charles area) and Jeff Davis Parish (known for its rice fields and crawfish farms) feature unforgettable activities that are a delicious gumbo blend of French culture and Southern hospitality.
If you want to be captivated by the joyous spirit that is Mardi Gras, there’s the neighborly town of Jennings in Jeff Davis Parish. It has its own parades and activities that promote Cajun music and culture in a warm personal way.
The annual Cajun Squeezebox Shootout was one of the highlights of our visit, with everyone at the historic Strand Theater enjoying the down-home toe-tapping accordion championship. The atmosphere made you want to get up and dance. And there was dancing in the streets during the Jennings Mardi Gras Parade and community festival at the Founders Park afterwards.
Although family-friendly, don’t think that you can’t have a wild time. There’s the local Courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras Run, better known as the Chicken Run), an unbelievable rural frat party, centuries old in its roots.
Bands of young fellas, dressed up in colorful tattered costumes with clown-like hats, run or ride horses around the countryside “begging” for the ingredients for a big pot of gumbo that they make at the end of the day. Large amounts of alcohol are consumed as the ritual takes them from homes to farms to businesses. The boys sing and dance with reckless abandon for their donations of rice, onions, homemade sausages, and the scrawniest chickens in the coop.
“These rural runs are the real Mardi Gras, not what they do in N’awlins. It’s just pure fun chasing the chicken,” a fun-loving local, Jared, told me. “We work hard, so we play hard. And this is about the best there is.”
His drinking buddy Daniel added, “This is tradition. This is how they celebrated when it all started, when the Cajuns first settled here, and they were poor and hungry. So they went around to the farm houses right before Lent and begged for money and food. Afterwards everyone would enjoy the gumbo and celebrate some more.”
“What I like about the Mardi Gras run, is that wherever you go, there’s a party. Because you are the party, dancing with your friends and the families at the farms, and having a good time,” explained David, one of the most enthusiastic members of the run. He informed that there are dozens of chicken runs in the little towns throughout the South, held during the days leading up to Fat Tuesday. And visitors are welcomed to observe or join in, “although, it is a young man’s game,” he cautioned.
Royal Gala In Lake Charles
The city of Lake Charles lets the good times roll on a much bigger scale.
Full of understandable pride, locals work hard to create their Mardi Gras extravaganza which brings in thousands of visitors from around the world. They come to see the various bead-throwing parades such as the Children’s Parade, with youngsters and their floats in the spotlight. Seniors get into the act with their own Krewe of the Golden Years parade. And a Red Hat Parade, featuring the ladies from the Red Hat Societies, was added this year.
The Krewe of Barkus Parade has dogs in fantastic Mardi Gras costumes trotting around. Even a Lighted Boat Parade on Lake Charles itself, adds to the magic.
One of the most magical nights is the Mardi Gras Royal Gala, a grandiose ball which has each Krewe presenting their own King and Queen, plus royal dukes and duchesses, captains and jesters, decked out in majestic costumes. It is the social event of the year, and the public is invited to enjoy the ultra-glitzy festivities on the eve of Fat Tuesday.
Mardi Gras night, the Krewe of Krewes’ Parade has hundreds of elaborate Krewe floats. It winds through Lake Charles’ downtown and midtown streets, which are lined with crowds ravenous for beads and “throws”– the goodies that Krewes throw at the throngs screaming “Throw me something, y’all.”
And when you reach up and pluck the beads out of midair, you feel the thrill of making a bond with a complete stranger who has given you a real treasure. Not the beads themselves, but the memory of Mardi Gras.