The Mardi Gras Chicken Run

Kerri Cooke Thursday, February 2, 2017 Comments Off on The Mardi Gras Chicken Run
The Mardi Gras Chicken Run

And It’s Relevance To 21st Century Life

Story By Kerri Cooke

Photos By David Simpson

Folks in Louisiana love to celebrate holidays. November to April, holidays keep retailers and citizens busy and happy. We travel from religious holiday to religious holiday due to the fact that our culture stems back all the way and orbits around Christianity.

Thanksgiving is about freedom to worship in America and give thanks for all the blessings in our life. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and giving gifts, and ourselves, to our families. Then comes Mardi Gras, Lent and Easter.

Baby Jesus is hidden in those king cakes everyone loves to eat in anticipation of a series of holidays in which Jesus is fulfilling a much different purpose than at Christmas — death instead of birth. However, before we make it to Easter, there is much to do. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated with parades, beads, food, alcohol and formal balls. But if you compare Mardi Gras in east Louisiana — New Orleans — with Mardi Gras in western and middle Louisiana — Lake Charles, Iowa, Mamou — there is one big difference between the two types of Mardi Gras celebration.

In my family, gumbo is a Christmas Eve tradition. However, just as soon as Christmas is over, die-hard Mardi Gras fans turn their attention to another celebration where gumbo is an even bigger deal: the Courir de Mardi Gras.

The Courir de Mardi Gras, also known as the Mardi Gras Run, Cajun Mardi Gras or chicken run, is one of the most bizarre communal events of the holiday, especially when it’s witnessed by an outsider who has no idea what’s going on. It involves dressing up in colorful costumes and chasing terrified chickens to the beat of zydeco music while downing large quantities of beer.

The chicken run is unique to Cajun Louisiana. It is a custom that dates all the way back to medieval France, where the Acadians originated from. All events prior to, during, and after the chicken run are considered the “fete de la quemande” or the “feast of begging.”

When France was still a country run by a few nobles who had all the wealth while most of the population was poor, the tradition of peasants begging for food in the middle of winter during the Mardi Gras season became acceptable. The rich could feel they did their share for the poor and thus feel better about their own luxurious life, while the peasants would obtain much-needed sustenance during the dead season. The peasants traveled from manor house to manor house, singing and dancing in payment for whatever the upper class would spare them.

The Mardi Gras costumes originated in France as well — as a type of political protest. The outfits were patched together with scrapes of cloth the peasants happened to have as a way to mock the decadent dress of the nobility.

The main concept of the chicken run has remained the same all these years — except for the fact that begging for food is a pretense these days, since the general population does not need to be given food.

Chicken runs take place all over the little towns in the area, such as Elton, Eunice and Iowa, with Mamou’s run being the most widely known.

Chicken runs also take place in bigger cities such as Lafayette, but in general, they are smaller celebrations designed to prevent too many people taking part in the runs for safety reasons.

Also, smaller towns are more tightly connected with the inhabitants, as most residents know most of the people in their community. This leads to a better opportunity for fellowship with their own.

Revelers can be adorned in elaborate costumes consisting of purple, green, gold and blue fabrics or frills or regular t-shirts and jeans.

Additionally, hats called capuchins can be worn with masks that are decorated with prominent noses, eyes and mouths. Due to the pointed nature of the hats and their resemblance to the headgear worn by the KKK, they are illegal to wear, except for during Mardi Gras.

The masks were generally used to protect a person’s identity during the celebrations. If you made a fool of yourself, nobody would know.

Each of today’s runs can involve dozens to hundreds of people. However, as the popularity of Mardi Gras and Mamou’s chicken run increases, more tourists come every year to attend this Louisiana tradition.

A chicken run begins on Mardi Gras — in rain or shine and in heat or the cold — with a designated capitaine. Dressed in a cape and holding a flag, he mounts his horse. He sometimes carries a harmless whip that he uses to direct and the revelers and keep them in line.

The people taking part in the chicken run can either be mounted on horses as well or travel on foot. Regardless of how they travel, they follow the capitaine.

It is the capitaine who first approaches a property and asks permission for everyone else to approach.

After ascertaining that it’s permissible to approach a house, the party descends from their horses and asks the residents of the house for ingredients for the gumbo that will feed them all later.

Modern celebrations usually have gumbo all day long. Now chickens are returned to their owners instead of having their necks wrung on the spot so they could be cooked. 

After the members of the chicken run have done their craziest dancing, sometimes while on their horses; loosened up by alcohol, and thus doing things that they normally would be embarrassed to do; and once they’ve sung their variation of the Mardi Gras song, chickens are thrown into the crowd, sometimes from the roofs of the houses. Then the group runs after the squawking and terrified chickens, tumbling over each other in an effort to be the one who catches the chicken. After the chickens are caught, the winner holds the chicken up for everyone to see.

It’s important to note that each chicken run is different in its own way. No two cities do it exactly alike.

Another important concept is that a chicken run is generally a male sport. Females are normally excluded, mainly for safety reasons and due to the general idea that not as many women want to run around chasing chickens as men do. However, for those women who do want to participate, there are options. Women have their own separate chicken runs in Eunice, while in Basile women are able to participate alongside the men.

Chicken runs, as in the past in France, can still be used as political statements today. Many communities halted the runs during WWII, as many of the men in the small communities were away. They would resume once again years later. A more modern occurrence in which politics were mixed with fun was when a chicken run in Eunice included effigies of Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

That being said, the chicken run is mostly used as a tool to have as much fun as possible before fasting for lent. It is about competition, adrenaline and inebriation. Also, it is a temporary escape from everyday life. You can be standing next to a lawyer, a banker or a farmer, and it doesn’t matter. For one day, you get to be someone else without having any judgment passed on you, since everyone is behaving as crazy or crazier than you. It all ends with the most essential thing to Louisiana culture — which is gumbo.

All that food and beer puts the fat in Fat Tuesday in preparation to tone down excessive behavior for fasting and reflection during Lent in anticipation of acknowledging Jesus’ sacrifice at Easter.

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