"Each of these small Catholic communities lies off the main arteries; each consists of a cluster of houses strung along a road passing roughly from a church to a sugar cane field," Robertson writes. "And though there is almost no communication among the communities, the Mardi Gras practices in them are the same in their essentials. Young men dressed in costumes and masks—calling themselves the Mardi Gras—roll down the main drag brandishing switches of peach or willow (the whip of choice in Gheens), bamboo (Promised Land), or broken fishing poles and golf club shafts (Choupic). Their targets are the children and young teenagers, who taunt and backtalk from the roadside but know that when the Mardi Gras jump out and the chase is on, no adult is a friend and any parent will sell out a son or daughter hiding in a back seat or under a bed."
"They almost always go easy, particularly on the younger children and the ones they do not recognize," Robertson write.s "A few light taps is all. This is the day and age we live in: A video could show up on YouTube, the elders warn the young maskers, or some parent could raise a stink and the whole tradition, dating back long past living memory, could be shut down." Mark Breaux, 57, of Gheens, told Robertson, “People have come here now that is not used to it and that don’t want their kids getting whipped. Our parents, they never minded it because they know what it’s about.”
"The whippings seem to get tougher and the chases get better as the memories go back farther," Robertson writes. "Way back when, the older men and women say, the Mardi Gras rode in on horses and carried bullwhips. The children really had to know their prayers back then and were not allowed to get away with saying their ABCs as they do now. In Promised Land you knew never to mess around with a certain Mardi Gras named Pokey, as he was capable of anything. That was when they would really hurt you."
The origin of the tradition is up for debate, Robertson writes. Barry Ancelet, a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, said "similar practices can be found in the ancient pagan springtime festivals, in medieval European rites and in African-Creole rituals," but for most locals "they all just knew that where they lived, the roots went deep, back to parents of grandparents." (Read more)