Décembre 2022 |Behind the Mask of Cajun Mardi Gras

Emma Harlet


Mardi Gras is unquestionably one of the largest celebrations in Louisiana. Yet, many versions of the celebration exist among the different communities. It has become a codified ritual for the local communities, embracing a feeling of unified cultural identity and tradition. Among the descendants of the Acadians, colloquially known as the Cajuns, Courir de Mardi Gras, as the event is called, has been taking place for over a century and remains a token of a shared ethnic commonality around the art of amusement. In some rural areas of Southwest Louisiana, the participants make their own costumes and meticulously manufacture their own masks. Disguise is essential for them to hide and engage in a guessing game with their audience while procuring a space for role reversal and entertainment embedded in the tradition of the carnival. As regards the disguise and the mask, Cajuns appreciate the cultural heritage that their ancestors have preserved for centuries. To wear a mask is to make a statement of Cajun ethnic endurance and pride, as well as a tribute to the culture.


En Louisiane, la fête de Mardi Gras est assurément l’une des traditions les plus importantes célébrée dans tout l’état. Toutefois, il existe de nombreuses versions parmi les différentes communautés. Cette tradition prend souvent forme de rituels codifiés qui participent à un sentiment d’unité et de conservatisme identitaire et culturel. Parmi les descendants des Acadiens, connus sous de nom de Cadiens, on assiste au Courir de Mardi Gras qui a servi depuis des siècles, et continue de servir, de socle à une identité ethnique commune autour de l’art du divertissement. Dans certaines régions rurales du Sud-Ouest de la Louisiane, les participants préparent leur propre costume et façonnent leur masque. Le déguisement est essentiel pour cacher celui qui le porte et inviter les autres membres de la communauté à participer à un jeu de devinettes, tout en procurant un espace de divertissement autour de l’inversion des rôles dans la tradition du carnavalesque. Les Cadiens honorent l’héritage culturel que leurs ancêtres ont perpétué depuis des siècles : porter le masque devient un hommage, une fierté et une célébration de la préservation de l’ethnicité cadienne.


        Louisiana’s Mardi Gras is famous worldwide. Yet, few know that there are other forms of celebration than the creole New Orleans festival. In southwest Louisiana, a group of French descendants, who arrived in North America in the early 17th century, known as the Cajuns, have their own festivities. The run, called le Courir de Mardi Gras, is an outstanding event in the Cajun tradition. This event originated in Medieval Europe (Sexton 298) and was brought to Louisiana by the first French colonists and is still reenacted by Cajuns today. Following typical carnival practice, roles are exchanged during this day of celebration, where costume and mask play a decisive function of disguise and deception. The purpose of rural Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations and the run is to gather the community together and celebrate a common ethnic tradition around the art of amusement. On the day of Mardi Gras, a group of costumed runners, or coureurs in Cajun French, go around the town, from house to house, in order to collect money and food for the reception held later that day (Sexton 298). In the evening, all the community members gather around a traditional gumbo, prepared with the donations made during the run, and listen to folk music and dance at a ball, all in the spirit of joie de vivre dear to the Cajun people (Sawin 188). In order to preserve their endangered cultural heritage, the Cajuns have established certain rules and codes that are respected, shaping a ritualized celebration. Naturally, the ceremony has evolved over the centuries, and although Mardi Gras practice varies from one town to another, there are shared practices and a hierarchy among participants.
All the Mardi Gras teams are composed of a capitaine, who is the only unmasked runner, and has the role of leading the others. Another standard of the Courir de Mardi Gras run, and certainly the most central to the event, is the use of disguise. Despite some variations between different communities, all the participants wear a mask and a costume; it is a symbol cherished and expected by both the runners and all the members of the community who participate in this tradition. In his research on rituals and celebrations, Victor Turner has shown the power of disguise. He writes that “a celebratory object has its potential for arousing thought, emotion, and desire” (17-18). The mask and the suit are desired for their design, their colors, but also for their impact on the wearer. As an emblem of carnival, the mask protects its bearer and allows him to become someone else, thus, breaking down the walls of traditional social constructs. The masks represent the individual on a personal level. More importantly, the disguise has value at the community level, as it serves as a token for ethnic cultural heritage. The mask plays a major role in the ceremony of rural Cajun Mardi Gras, it is a desired object that facilitates individual emancipation, entertainment, and symbolizes the community bonds and a shared ethnic identity.

The Mask, an Expected Object

        The desire the Cajuns have for the mask is, primarily, for the object in itself. Turner explains that the object is linked to the festivity, “Each kind of ritual, ceremony, or festival comes to be coupled with a special presentation, physical and cultural environment, and often, masks, body-painting, headgear, furniture, and shrines” (13). In the case of carnival, the event is recurrent and therefore expected and longed for. Plato considers happiness as a form of desire and desire as absence. The wait, the search, missing the mask makes it so much more desirable as it becomes an attainable goal. In Cajun Mardi Gras, the celebration is prepared months in advance and the participants take a great interest in the manufacturing of their masks and costumes. There is a form of longing, expectation and craving for the disguise that is illustrated by the involvement of Cajuns in the customization of their costumes. Whether they make their own outfits, or have them made, Cajuns meticulously think about how the mask and the costume should look, how it may best represent their identity and their state of mind. Baudrillard talks about the value of “absolute singularity” in the way the possessed object becomes the representation of its owner, which “allows [someone] to recognize [himself] in the object as an absolutely singular being” (Baudrillard 90). The mask is, for the most part, hand-made because it leaves more room for the personalization of the object, and because t celebrates the long tradition of mask-making in the community. Yet, we can see a diversity in the conception of the costumes, as the designs, the materials, and the textures vary from town to town.
As Carolyn Ware explains, “in Tee Mamou, variation in Mardi Gras suits and hats is limited but inventive masks flourish. Here, the mask-making tradition is much more elastic than in nearby Eunice or Basile; masks need only be handmade” (“Act Crazy” 243). The dynamic of the mask-making works around the desire for creativity along with consideration for a common Cajun identity. The mask is not just any old mask, like those that can be found in the Anglo-American tradition of Halloween for example, but it is a marker of the carnival as a community ceremony. Some Cajuns prefer to wear an old mask, either a personal talisman, a favorite object, or an heirloom made by an elder. In an interview conducted by Michael Welch, Allen and Georgie Manuel, two mask makers from Eunice, observe: “If the tradition of Mardi Gras is hundreds of years old, we need to stay as close as we can.” Even if the design of the mask has an individual uniqueness, there is an emphasis on keeping a cultural logic with general features. There is indeed a type of disguise considered as more traditional than any other, “most Cajuns will tell you that the most traditional or ‘original’ disguise is a wire screen mask, a pointed hat known as a capuchon, and a multicolored two-piece suit” (Welch). Not only does the disguise respect a long tradition, but it also reflects the future pleasure that it will procure. In his article on desire, Frederico Lauria explains:

Le système de la récompense joue un rôle central dans l’apprentissage pratique. Notre attention est modulée autour des récompenses, parfois de façon inconsciente. Lorsqu’une créature désire quelque chose, elle anticipe une certaine récompense. Cela la motive à agir. Si l’expérience de la satisfaction s’avère positive, le désir et comportement qui s’ensuivent sont renforcés: la probabilité d’agir de la même façon augmente.

        Therefore, the object is desired as it is a projection of an imminent feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Colors are also very important in Cajun Mardi Gras and, as Baudrillard states in The System of Objects, colors are a “metaphor for fixed cultural meanings” (31). In the context of the Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, colors have a symbolic dimension. In some communities, purple, green, red, and gold are associated with Mardi Gras, in other towns, there are no restrictions and participants prefer mixing a variety of colors; but it is clear that the colors are essential to the festivities (Ware, “Act Crazy” 231). In some places, we can also witness the influence of the more mainstream Louisiana Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where purple, green and gold are associated with the festivity. The combination of very vivid colors has an impact on the general atmosphere of the celebration as they represent states of mind, and the widespread use of colors is linked to happiness and amusement. Moreover, Baudrillard adds that “bright color is always apprehended as a sign of emancipation” (32). The main quality of the disguise is concealment, and the freedom it gives the wearer. Not only do the participants expect the masks as symbols of the run, but they also desire what the mask procures: “Mardi Gras provides a space that gives the participants the liberty ‘to act in new ways’” (Servaes 102), to choose a “role and create [a] theatrical play” (Servaes 102). Mardi Gras runners wear masks and become new characters. They are able to achieve pleasure and freedom as long as they have the opportunity to conceal themselves from others.

 The Entertaining Nature of the Mask as an Accessory in the Carnival Run

        In Cajun Mardi Gras, the disguise is significant as it acts as an accessory in the theatricality of the festivity. In the introduction to Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin establishes the foundation of carnival as a tradition of social emancipation for those who participate:

Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. (10)

        As the mask symbolizes the celebration itself, it allows the creation of amusement, drama, and games inherent to carnival. As Turner has described them, masks “represent ideas, objects, events, relationships, ‘truths’ not immediately present to the observer, or even intangible or invisible thoughts and conceptions” (16). Disguise empowers the participant to change identity, to become someone else, and forget his social environment. Oto Bihalji-Merin explains, in his study about the carnival mask, that

Unfree, subject to the iron laws for harsh experience, starved of sensations and rich only in desire, the common people were once permitted to put on masks for their carnival festivities, thus expressing their inner feelings, their imaginative vision of the self. (9)

        Undeniably, role reversal is the core of the Mardi Gras celebrated in South Louisiana. The disguise provides a release from inhibitions. Cajuns can play a new character, someone different from themselves, exchange gender or age. It is not unusual to see women with beards and moustaches, and on the contrary, men wearing female attributes. As Barry Jean Ancelet observes,

Masks provide an opportunity to shed inhibitions and to take on roles for the day. Otherwise serious people can be transformed into clowns and otherwise timid people can become leaders. The altering of facial features, by means of masks or face painting, has long been associated with rites of passage for similar reasons. (84)

        The possibilities offered by a switch of social function and position are evidently attractive to the people. And even if life has improved, Carl Lindahl remarks that if “hunger is not a current problem for older men . . . it is a persistent memory” (137). Being able to play the role of a wealthy landowner when you are poor or playing a “fool” when you are considered a “wise man” allows the participants a form of catharsis that frees them from everyday life. The mask is the enabler of that by guaranteeing anonymity. As Suson Launey explains: “When you’re doing your little show . . . , you need to keep your mask on. It is part of your costume. Your thing is not to be recognized” (qtd. in Sawin 179). With the mask on, the runner loses his individual identity, he becomes an actor who plays with his audience.
The desire for the mask therefore comes with the potential it gives the wearer. Not only does it “preserve a residue of mystery and give its wearer a pleasurable feeling of otherness and ambiguity” (Bihalji-Merin 98), but it empowers people who would not usually be able to achieve such positions of influence. Most noteworthy in Cajun Mardi Gras is women’s emancipation. The anonymity and freedom granted to Cajuns via their masks in this celebration has enabled women to play a new part within their community, a new role. In her study of women’s roles, Carolyn Ware describes:

Cajun women’s early masking performances were, first and foremost, an assertion of power. Masking gave women access to public liberties not normally associated with women: they could roam the streets unrecognized, flirt and dance with men who were not their husbands, beg strangers and friends for money, clow, act “crazy,” and play practical jokes. The act of masking was itself empowering, as men (the usual maskers) were left puzzling over the women’s hidden identities and even their gender. (“Reading the Rules” 46)

        Indeed, the tradition evolved greatly throughout the 20th century regarding gender roles. Nowadays, women have broadened their part in the Courir de Mardi Gras, in towns like Eunice, they now dominate the commercial end of mask-making and contribute to the preservation and evolution of customs.
Additionally, being masked enables women to run, to hide their true selves, eliminating the discrimination of gender. The freedom granted by the mask has initiated a desire to redefine the celebration and its male exclusivity, while respecting the long-established tradition of enjoyment.  If desire is sparked by something we do not yet have, we can see the mask as the representation, the face of what we desire to be.

The Mask as a Token of the Cajuns’ Desire for Ethnic Preservation

        Mardi Gras is a community celebration. The entertainment produced by the disguise invokes a guessing game that starts when the runners begin to collect their donations. This game is part of the fun, but it is also linked to pride and desire to show closeness and recognition of the fellow Mardi Gras participants. Runners will tease the hosts throughout the festival while the hosts are determined to identify these mysterious individuals. It is one of the main entertainments in the interactions between the hosts and the runners, but the run functions on the idea of sharing, or as Carl Lindahl mentions, an “image of interdependence,” between the runners and other members of the community: “anonymous masked men, symbolic of anyone who may be hungry, beg for food and receive chickens, rice and other foodstuffs given impartially by the farmers” (130). The hosts try to recognize the person under the mask with the anticipation of surprise to discover someone close to them whether it is their neighbor, a family member, or a friend. Patricia Sawin explains that:

being unrecognizable reinforces the ties of neighborliness between disguised visitors and those who would recognize them if they were not disguised. Given that this is all a game, even if a deep one, hosts seem happy to accept the connection with their neighbors whether it is created by the classic inverted route or by the direct means of seeing, recognizing, and playing with each other. (190)

        The mask enables people to hide their identities and their individualities. Although disguise is used as a tool for amusement, concealment possesses a more important symbolism: it represents a form of unity and equality within a community, as it creates a family relationship with other members. To some extent, we can identify the run as a rite of passage, as Turner describes it: “The ritual subject, individual, or corporate, . . . is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions” (95). It is the case in Cajun Mardi Gras, the run has been seen as a rite of passage for boys, exclusive to men as Ancelet notes, “Mardi Gras marks manhood. Older riders remember it as an all-male affair, a rite of passage incorporating the boys into the adult community and accentuating the skills most prized by male Cajun adults: horsemanship, resourceful farming, prowess at racing and dancing, hard work, hard play” (130). The festivity is deeply linked to a sense of belonging to a community, a respect of certain rules and societal norms. Recently, some codes have evolved, as we have seen with the growing acceptation of women, but the collective affiliation is nonetheless at the core of what motivates its members to participate. As Federico Lauria observes, “le désir . . . nous pousse à agir ; Il s’agit du dogme principal concernant les désirs. Comme le disait Elisabeth Anscombe (1963), le signe le plus primitif d’un désir est la tentative de le réaliser.” Therefore, one could consider Mardi Gras as a person’s desire to find his/her place within the community.
Mardi Gras becomes a marker for ethnic identity, in contrast with mainstream Anglo-American Protestantism, they “hide their everyday American identity in order to reveal their historical or genealogical French identity, which American popular culture dominates during the rest of the year” (Servaes 100-01). But we can argue that it encourages a local pride and desire to be part of a certain community, even amongst Cajuns: “The runs represent ethnic heritage, but also a specifically regional way of life: prairie Cajunness, in distinction from life in Louisiana’s swamps, marshes, and cities. Perhaps more important, Mardi Gras runs are an expression of community and reciprocity” (“Reading Rules” 43). Masking is linked to the devotion of re-enacting the past and becomes a “symbolic awakening of the ancestor” (Servaes 101) as well as a direct connection to a shared heritage which brings the participants together as a community.


        The custom of masking represents Mardi Gras participants’ desire to be part of the celebrations, in which they take great care in preparing. Cajuns project the pleasures and the power of the celebration through the object itself. Although, the desirability of the mask is not only defined by the physical object, but also what it represents and bestows. Masking works as a catharsis for the wearer both on a personal and on a social level. Anonymity allows people freedom of action, and the possibility to assume a role which would not be normally acceptable. Masking plays an essential role in community’s stability and durability.

When a social group, whether it be a family, clan, village, nation, congregation, or church, celebrates a particular event or occasion, such as birth, harvest, or national independence, it also “celebrates itself.” In other words, it attempts to manifest, in symbolic form, what it conceives to be its essential life, at once the distillation and typification of its corporate experience. (Turner 16)

        Victor Turner’s definition of celebration applies to Cajuns’ tradition of Mardi Gras masks because it awards its members a sense of integration, a desire to belong, but it also satisfies Louisiana’s francophone minorities wish to resist Anglo-American cultural oppression and to preserve their culture’s uniqueness and Cajunness.

Works Cited

Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards and Glen Pitre. Cajun Country. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. Print.
Bakhtine, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. 1965. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. New York: Verso, 1968. Print.
Bihalji-Merin, Oto. Great Masks. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1972. Print.
Lauria, Federico. “Désir (A).” L’Encyclopédie Philosophique, 2017, encyclo-philo.fr/desir-a/. Web. 14/09/2022.
Lindahl, Carl. “The Presence of the Past in the Cajun Country Mardi Gras.” Journal of Folklore Research 33.2 (1996): 125-53. Print.
Sawin, Patricia E. “Transparent Masks: The Ideology and Practice of Disguise in Contemporary Cajun Mardi Gras.” The Journal of American Folklore 114.452 (Spring 2001): 175-203. Print.
Servaes, Anna. Franco-American Identity, Community, and la Guianne. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2015. Print.
Sexton, Rocky L. “Cajun Mardi Gras: Cultural Objectification and Symbolic Appropriation in a French Tradition.” Ethnology 38.4 (1999): 297-313. Print.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. Ithaca NY: Cornell Paperbacks, 1991. Print.
Ware, Carolyn. “Anything to Act Crazy: Cajun Women and Mardi Gras Disguise.” The Journal of American Folklore 114.452 (Spring 2001): 225-47. Print.
—. Cajun Women and Mardi Gras: Reading the Rules Backward. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2007. Print.
Welch, Michael Patrick. “The Story Behind Cajun Mardi Gras Masks.” Acadiana Profile, January/December 2014, Web. 18/10/2022.


Emma Harlet est doctorante en cotutelle internationale en études francophones à l’Université de Louisiane à Lafayette et en études anglophones à l’École Doctorale Montaigne-Humanités de Bordeaux. Elle s’intéresse aux complexités identitaires et culturelles louisianaises et leur impact sur la littérature. Sa recherche porte sur la notion de créolité dans les écrits d’écrivaines louisianaises francophones et anglophones de la fin du XIXe siècle et du début du XXe.


Emma Harlet is doing a Joint Ph.D. in Francophone studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and in Anglophone studies at the Doctoral School Montaigne-Humanities in Bordeaux. She’s interested in Louisiana’s complex relation to identity and culture and its impact on literature. Her research focuses on the concept of creoleness in the work of French and English-speaking female writers from the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.