Cajun Mardi Gras: Cultural Objectification and Symbolic Appropriation in a French Tradition(1)

By Sexton, Rocky L. | Ethnology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Cajun Mardi Gras: Cultural Objectification and Symbolic Appropriation in a French Tradition(1)


Sexton, Rocky L., Ethnology


Rural Louisiana Mardi Gras is viewed as a Cajun-French custom although it was once shared by a diverse Louisiana French population. This transformation occurred during a late-twentieth-century ethnic revival which objectified and symbolically appropriated local culture as Cajun. This Cajunization process was aided by external influences such as scholarly literature and the media which identified local culture and French Louisiana in general as Cajun. Despite a recent Afro-French ethnic movement, which also claims ownership or co-ownership of local culture, rural Mardi Gras is still identified as a Cajun cultural institution and the celebration unifies a diverse Cajun-French population. (Cajun, Mardi Gras, ethnic revival, symbolic appropriation, cultural objectification)

There are two well-known forms of Mardi Gras in Louisiana: the famed New Orleans celebration, and the "rural" or "country" Mardi Gras. The latter celebration is now widely treated as a uniquely Cajun-French cultural institution. However, rural Mardi Gras was once found in areas of France and French Canada, and in Louisiana it was shared by a racially and ethnically diverse Louisiana French population. This article describes the Cajunization of country Mardi Gras, a sociocultural process that occurred during a late-twentieth-century Cajun-French ethnic revival centered in southwest Louisiana. This movement, like concurrent ethnic movements in North America and Europe, objectified valued cultural elements as part of a specific identity to be publicly promoted. The transformation of these elements into cultural property involves symbolic appropriation because ownership of cultural materials is often promoted even though they are present among other groups. With the Cajun-French this involved both their laying claim to generic Louisiana French cultural elements and having these traits ascribed to them by outsiders. External ascription came from scholarly and popular writings, documentary films, the media, and ethnic tourism promotion, all of which promoted and reinforced a one-to-one link between French Louisiana culture and Cajun culture and identity. Cajunization, internally and externally driven, included subsuming other white Louisiana French under the ethnic label, Cajun-French, and a neglect of the Afro-French and their contributions to the evolution of Louisiana French culture. A growing African-American-directed ethnic movement is only now contesting the latter process. Nonetheless, rural Mardi Gras as a cultural institution, and as a complex of cultural elements, promotes an imagined Cajun-French community and integrates a diverse population.

COUNTRY MARDI GRAS AS GENERIC FRENCH TRADITION

Mardi Gras has origins in pre-Christian celebrations. By the Middle Ages many of these celebrations were associated with the Catholic liturgical calendar. In France, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), became a day of excess and riotous behavior before Ash Wednesday ushered in Lent, a 40-day period of austerity for Catholics. In French cities, Mardi Gras evolved into the large-scale urban carnival that in the United States is now associated with New Orleans. However, in small French towns and the countryside, a begging tour was the defining element of Mardi Gras as well as other holidays like Guillonnee (New Year's Eve), La Chandeleur (Candlemas), and MiCareme (Mid-Lent). In these tours, rowdy bands of costumed revelers visited house to house, singing, dancing, and performing comical acts in exchange for food, to be consumed on the spot or to provision a communal feast as a climax to the holiday (Van Gennep 1947). The various holidays were transplanted to North America; however, rural Mardi Gras was the only custom to take root in Louisiana.

While it is often assumed that rural Mardi Gras was introduced to Louisiana by Acadians, no study to date has confirmed this. The complex settlement history of Louisiana and variation within the rural Mardi Gras tradition suggest that the custom developed from elements originating in multiple areas of France, or later in Canada, and then diffused to Louisiana at different times with various French settlers. …

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