Neither Spared nor Spoiled: The Mardi Gras Chase in Choupic, Louisiana
By Madeline Domangue Cagle
On Mardi Gras day in the rural community of Choupic, Louisiana, it is not unusual to see young children scrambling across the fields, swamps, and neighbors' yards in an attempt to escape the bantering wrath of the switch-bearing masked men who are racing after them. Richard Clement, a retired farmer and lifelong resident of the area, remarked on Lundi Gras, March 22, 1993: "If you'd be here at around nine o'clock tomorrow morning, you'd see Mardi Gras'ers all over . . . poor kids running in the swamp."
Mardi Gras in Choupic is a Louisiana Cajun Country tradition. According to records from Our Lady of Prompt Succor Catholic Church, Chackbay, Louisiana, the majority of Choupic residents are descendants of the original Catholic Acadians of Canada. Richard Clement comments that his grandfather came to Louisiana by boat from Canada. The small community lies on a ridge running through the swampy region between the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche, north of Thibodaux. Along the ridge, the Cajuns in this area of Lafourche Parish found land fit for cultivation. In his volume tracing the sociocultural evolution of Louisiana's Acadian/Cajuns, Carl Brasseaux notes that the economies in Louisiana's Acadian parishes flourished in the 19th century due to the introduction of the sugar industry. He records: "The number of Acadian sugar growers in Assumption and Lafourche parishes tripled between 1829 and 1850" (1992:6-7). Choupic, which developed around Native American trails also traveled by the early Acadians on route from the Mississippi River to the Attakapas and Teche areas, runs along Louisiana Highway 304 from Bayou Lafourche to Bayou Onion. Settlement began in the first half of the 19th century as all available arable land along Bayou Lafourche was claimed by the productive, ever-growing Acadian population. Thus many Acadian families migrated north to the ridges, the areas now known as Choupic and Chackbay, in order to find more good land for growing crops, especially sugarcane (Westerman 1991:i).
Pre-Lenten traditions have long been a part of the area's folklife. Lent is a time when Catholic Christians focus more intensely upon their sins and the sacrifice of their savior Jesus Christ. It is a period of deep reflection and prayer for devout Catholics. Mardi Gras, also called Carnival, takes place the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday; it is the last day before the Catholics' forty-day Lenten Season. In Catholic communities, Mardi Gras festivities point to the serious days ahead. In a section of his essay "Cajun Social Institutions and Cultural Configurations," Steven Del Sesto briefly discusses Mardi Gras and remarks, " . . . many contend that religion plays a minor role these days . . ." (1975:129). It is true that not all of those who celebrate Mardi Gras in South Louisiana are Catholic and that many of the Catholics do not consider Mardi Gras a religious festival but a chance to "party"; however, many of those Catholics living it up at parades, balls, and celebrations have decided beforehand to give up some of their pleasures for forty days and will be in church on Wednesday to receive their ashes as a reminder of their mortality. Perhaps the religious ties cannot be clearly delineated, but celebrating does have its basis in Catholic folklife.
The Choupic Mardi Gras differs not only from the more organized, urban New Orleans Mardi Gras parades and balls but also from the rural, horseback Courir de Mardi Gras of Mamou and other prairie towns. This small community's celebration extends only as far as the community's boundaries. Choupic residents stress that the Mardi Gras chasers do not travel into nearby Chackbay. In Choupic, Mardi Gras involves a ritual chasing and flogging. The Mardi Gras chasers, Choupic's unmarried men in their teens and early twenties, secretly plan the event from year to year. Generally, the males begin running at the age of sixteen or seventeen; and it is understood that when the young man decides to get married and have children of his own, he will voluntarily stop chasing. None of the runners will disclose their participation as chasers; they do not even share the information with family members. In January and February the chasers begin deciding who will wear what costumes--masking to hide identity is a very important aspect of the festival. Former runner Glen Clement, a middle-aged son of Richard Clement who now has children of his own, says that the chasers have no set routes nor specific rules of conduct. The intent is to scare the younger boys and girls of the community. The masked runners chase the youth down then have them recite their prayers before giving them their pre-Lenten flogging--a few whelps on the rear end and legs inflicted with tree switches and sometimes the flexible ends of broken fishing poles.
The chasers gather early on Mardi Gras morning at a place called Possum Square near the town barroom. Alcohol consumption begins here and continues throughout the day. The chasers then crowd into the back of a few pickup trucks and hide. The driver remains unmasked so that Choupic residents do not know which trucks bear the revelers. Eight-year-old Jordan and twelve-year old Amber report that when trucks start passing along the road (Highway 304) honking their horns, everyone knows the chasers are on their way. The young boy and girl add that the "bomping" trucks do not necessarily have riders. Evidently, just as the urban parades have police sirens to stir anticipation in the waiting crowd, the tooting warns the children that the revelers are on their way and confuses them about which trucks contain the chasers. When the trucks reach the residential section of Choupic, all the chaser-harboring vehicles stop and the costumed men raid the area, hollering and waving their formidable switches.
The children who have dared to set foot outside begin to run! Cyndi Cagle, who grew up in the hamlet and now resides there with her husband and children, jestfully warns her children, "If you go outside, you're gonna get whipped. . . . They'll whip you all day long if they catch you." But Jordan has already planned his escape route--when the switch bearing big guys pursue him, he will run across the field, jump into his poppa's blue boat, and escape across the swamp. "You're not gonna be able to out run those guys. And when they catch you in the water it's gonna sting even more," adds his mother. Jordan has the right idea. Some of the chased set their trails before Tuesday morning. Some children even plant booby traps along their planned escape routes to stall the wrathful runners.
Staying inside does not ensure safety either. Glen Clement claims that parents often tell their children to go inside when they see the marauders coming; the adults explain that they will lock the doors and keep the bandits out. But as the children run to their expected safe haven, they find the doors of their own homes locked to keep them out instead of in. Amber notes, "Last year, I watched my cousins getting whipped from in my poppa's at the bathroom window; and they had this pirate, and he saw me. It was scary. If they come in your house, they can trap you." But the majority of the chasing is carried on outside for everyone to watch. Inevitably, the children are caught.
The frightened captives are then taken to the busiest street in Choupic, Mark Lane. Here, they are lined up and whipped with switches by the unidentifiable, chastising chasers. "They bring you where a lot, a lot of people can see you so that you can be embarrassed," stresses Amber. The adult onlookers, some of whom are the children's own parents, watch in amusement as the children are commanded to say their prayers on their knees. Richard Clement laughs, "You get a kick out of seeing the poor kid who's trembling and scared to death." Yet the children themselves seem to delight in the fright and mild pain inflicted upon them during the mock public flogging.
Cyndi Cagle, now in her thirties, recalls what it is like to be among the chased. "Fifteen to twenty guys coming at you. It's scary. It's still scary." Though she exercises daily, she remarks with a laugh, "I was gonna walk because the gym's closed tomorrow, but I'm not even gonna chance it." Yet the chasers are definitely not vindictive and brutal beaters; the entire event is all done in jestful fun. No one gets hurt badly from being whipped too harshly. Most of those who have been whipped acknowledge that they whip hard enough to cause minor pain, but that is it. One of the flogged comments, "They whip you hard enough so that at night when you get in the bathtub you got whelps that pop up, but they don't hit from the waist up." The chased and caught also emphasize that the runners enjoy harassing their younger siblings and cousins. Young men who would normally protect their younger relatives take special delight in whipping their brothers, sisters, and cousins. The older boys might be masked, but the children know by the strength of the blow that it is one of their relatives whipping them. The chasers also make a point to catch the young preteens who have reputations as being tough. One runner claims, "We get inside tips as to where the toughies plan to hide and we make sure to find them." No formal rules inform this country Mardi Gras tradition, but everyone in the community has a general understanding of the festival's boundaries and limits.
Richard Clement says that as far back as he can remember, the ritual of the Mardi Gras chase has occurred. A few years ago his son Glen Clement spoke with "Snap" Chaisson. Glen says that Mr. Chaisson told him he was 98 years old and could remember the days when he had been chased as a young boy in Choupic. Richard Clement notes that adaptations have been made, such as the use of three-wheelers rather than traveling solely on foot. But most of the chasers still resort to chasing on foot. Formerly, comments Mr. Clement, the chasers would "wear a bright colored shirt . . . and a mask. That's all." They did not travel to New Orleans for costumes as many of the chasers do now. Mr. Clement says that the tradition really has not changed much. Masked Mardi Gras chasers have always pursued only the young, fearful yet dauntless, children of the area. Once caught, the children know they must fall to their knees in supplication. Mr. Clement recalls that in the past, "If you didn't know your prayers, they'd make you stay right there. If you moved, you were gonna get it." He advises: "learn your prayers!" Yet even if the Our Father is recited perfectly the child is not spared the rod. The young men never really whip hard enough to hurt anyone; it's all done in fun, adds Mr. Clement. He also chuckles and acknowledges that it takes care of all the discipline parents have neglected all year long. The notion of spoiling the child who is spared the rod evidences itself in this ritual.
Richard Clement mentions that drinking has always been a part of the tradition: "Whatever they brewed themselves, they'd drink." Though masked, in the early 1900s, the young men were still easily identifiable by neighbors. Mr. Clement claims: Even though they were masked, neighbors would know him [the chaser]. There wasn't that many people. They were all young men that would mask; and here, you knew how many they had. . . . He had two pair of shoes--his Sunday shoes and his work shoes. It wasn't hard to figure out. You knew his shoes--you knew who he was. Thus, they were careful not to go too far beyond what would be considered acceptable by the residents. Mr. Clement notes that because personal identity is now well hidden, the masked chasers may tread the boundaries of acceptability a little more closely; but in earlier years, this was not possible. Even now, reversal of social norms has identifiable limits of which all the participants are well aware.
Mardi Gras in Choupic has always been an organized chaos, and the festival grows bigger every year. The Choupic Mardi Gras chase winds down around noon, giving Choupic residents time to "catch the Thibodaux parade"(get to Thibodaux six miles away for the parade there). In the mid 1970s, Choupic began a late afternoon parade much like truck parades in other small towns. The Thibodaux-style parade, similar to New Orleans parades with trucks and floats, manifests itself in Choupic's late afternoon parade. Now the residents even use some of the floats from the more urban-like Thibodaux celebration. Yet the early morning chase in Choupic is in no danger of ending; too many in the community enjoy the celebration.
When asked what the tradition in Choupic signifies or means, and why he thinks the Mardi Gras chase exists, Richard Clement recollects that Tuesday night at twelve o'clock, the barroom and the dance hall were shut: "They put a big bar across the door until Easter Sunday. No dances, no drinking, nothing." Mr. Clement reflects, "It's just a tradition before Lent every year." Mr. Clement believes young men went "crazy because they knew they had seven weeks of doing nothing. You could just take your girlfriend and bring her to church. That's it!" To some degree, this belief has been held over.
Cyndi Cagle also gave her view of the festival and its importance to the community: "It's a tradition. . . . It's done like a knee-jerk reaction. I never really thought about it much. I guess it's important because it preserves a piece of your heritage. . . . and it's harmless fun."
Glen Clement, now living in Thibodaux, believes the main reason that the Mardi Gras chase exists is "because kids want it." He emphasizes: "I looked forward to it. And now my son is up every Mardi Gras morning at six o'clock so that I can take him to Choupic for the chase." Glen feels the chase will continue because the people, especially the children, enjoy the event so much. He asserts, "The next generation of chasers is being chased today."
Choupic residents suggest, in practical terms, what folklorist Robert Smith theorizes:
It may be assumed that festival behavior, being voluntary, and being repeated by the individuals of a community year after year through the centuries, is rewarding to the performer; further it may be assumed that the reward is not in the cognitive domain but rather in the affective (one does not go to a festival to learn anything new). (1972:170)
Choupic's traditional Mardi Gras chase has acculturated aspects of several ancient festivals. Barry Jean Ancelet believes that Mardi Gras traditions relate back to the ancient Celts of Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany: "Many Celtic customs, such as use of the whip as a fertility symbol, filtered from Brittany into French Poitou, and then came with the Acadians to the New World" (qtd. in Pitre 1992:56). The authors of Cajun Country discuss the ancient Roman fertility rite lupercalia as well--masked men beat women with animal pelts to ensure fertility in the coming season. They also explain that medieval Europe's flagellant processions have found their way into rural Louisiana's Mardi Gras practices. Medieval Catholics' concept of self-abnegation and renunciation in reparation for sins often involved public flogging processions in which flagellants beat themselves and others in order to purge them of their evil ways. Another aspect of the European Middle Ages, the fête de la quemande, also surfaces in some of Louisiana's Mardi Gras traditions. On this holiday, the "beggar's feast," medieval revelers traversed the countryside providing entertainment in return for some type of donation (Ancelet, Edwards, Pitre 1991:84-85). In Choupic, however, there is no begging for contributions.
Roger Abrahams, in his essay "An American Vocabulary of Celebrations," distinguishes ritual from festival and points out another important component of festivals:
. . . festivals manufacture their own energies by upsetting things, creating a disturbance "for the fun of it." While ritual underscores the harmonies and continuities in the expressive resources of a culture, emphasizing wholeness of the world's fabric, festivals work (at least at their inception) by apparently tearing the fabric to pieces, by displaying it upside-down, inside-out, wearing it as motley rags and tatters. (1987:178)
Mardi Gras festivals do this by playfully inverting the social norms. Men dress as women, women dress as men, the old dress as the young, and the young dress as the old. Other elements of Mardi Gras include masking to ensure anonymity, and the use of mind altering substances such as alcohol (Ancelet 1989:1-2). All blend to create an atmosphere of fun and revelry.
Constructs of festival activity and theories as to Mardi Gras origins offer possible explanations of the Choupic Mardi Gras tradition, where masked youth acting in the role of authoritarian adults traverse through their community, behaving in ways that would be considered unacceptable, if not absurd, any other day of the year. Victor Turner's concept of "frame" and "framing" offers an explanation about the way in which celebrations have set boundaries which encase space and time. In festive frames, participants "escape from the 'should' and 'ought' character of ritual . . . and see themselves as free to fabricate a range of alternative possibilities of behaving, thinking, and feeling that is wider than that current or admissible in either the mundane world or the ritual frame" (1982:28). Choupic's young men and the children mock the adults' authoritarian system of discipline, presenting its ludic counterpart. A playful critique of the domineering adults, their folly is a comic drama for Choupic's adults. Paradoxically, the entire event also reinforces the society's larger structural frame--the children look forward to being old enough to chase and whip, and the young men who chase eventually move on to assume their roles as real parenting adults. Although the festival does not explicitly celebrate a ceremonious rite of passage, the festival does intimate the life cycle as the individual moves from one stage of life to another over time.
The Choupic Mardi Gras chase also marks the passage of the seasons. Though the people of Choupic may no longer be as tied to the agricultural cycle or the Church, both are still underlying currents in the community. The festival with its suggestion of ancient fertility rites, occurs at an agricultural low point in the year, during the less productive winter (Abrahams 1982:160-68). Compounding the lack of labor, Lent begins a religious season which emphasizes self-restraint and purgation rather than gratification and fulfillment. The mutual fun of the chase is then a respite from the season's monotonies. The community creates its own energies in relation to the atmosphere surrounding it.
As farming Acadians, it seems appropriate that fertility symbolism and Roman Catholicism should stand out as strongly influential in the Choupic Mardi Gras chase. Whatever the latent historical and theoretical significations of Choupic's Mardi Gras, the Cajuns of Choupic are chiefly conscious of the celebration's liberating spirit of fun.
Abrahams, Roger D. 1987. "An American Vocabulary of Celebrations." Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival. Ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: U of Mexico P. pp. 173-83.
_____. 1982. "The Language of Festivals: Celebrating the Economy." Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Ed. Victor Turner. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp. 160-77.
Ancelet, Barry Jean. 1989. "Capitaine, voyage ton flag": The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies of University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Folklife in the South Series 1. Jackson: UP of Mississippi.
Brasseaux, Carl A. 1992. Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877. Jackson: UP of Mississippi.
Cagle, Cyndi, Amber Cagle, and Jordan Cagle. Personal interview. 22 Feb. 1993.
Cagle, Cyndi. Personal interview. 11 April 1993.
_____. Telephone interview. 24 April 1993.
Clement, Glen. Telephone interview. 23 April 1993.
Clement, Richard. Personal interview. 22 February 1993.
Del Sesto, Steven L. 1975. "Cajun Social Institutions and Cultural Configurations." The Culture of Acadiana: Tradition and Change in South Louisiana. Ed. Steven L. Del Sesto and Jon L. Gibson. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana. Pp. 121-42.
Pitre, Glenn. 1992. "Mardi Gras Chase." Louisiana Life Feb./March: 54-60.
Smith, Robert Jerome. 1972. "Social Folk Custom: Festivals and Celebrations." Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Ed. Richard M. Dorson. U of Chicago P. pp. 159-71.
Turner, Victor. Introduction. 1982. Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Ed. Victor Turner. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp. 11-30.
Westerman, Audrey B. 1991. Foreword. Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church Cemetery: Chackbay, Louisiana. Comp. Beverly E. Benoit. N.p.: n.p., [c. 1991].
1. An earlier, traditional spelling for this word is Choupique. The spelling on road signs in the area, however, is Choupic. According to the Lafourche Parish Tourist Commission, this is also the spelling in common usage. The area is officially a Thibodaux, Louisiana, U.S. Post Office Route.