Cultural Differences Taught through a Regional Holiday Carnival, Mardi Gras, Courri du Mardi Gras

Mary Allen, Deborah Blackwell

America abounds with regional festivals and holidays which provide many opportunities to teach about our rich cultural heritage. What better way to capture a child’s interest than through the folklore, music, literature, and art so richly displayed in these celebrations! Each region has its own unique festival. In this case, Mardi Gras, one of Louisiana’s favorite holiday festivals, reflects the similarities and differences in the diverse cultures found within this state.


The roots of Mardi Gras in New Orleans reach back to the history of Greece, Rome, and the Christian church. The Greek and Roman influence is observable in the celebration, throws and face-masking; the church instituted the religious aspect of Mardi Gras; and more recently the French contributed the name of Mardi Gras and the date that it is celebrated. The Cajun Louisiana Mardi Gras tradition has its roots in the ancient springtime rituals and rites of passage. Those particular rituals and rites were based on medieval European celebrations. Carnival in both New Orleans and Acadiana has evolved over the years into what we know today as Mardi Gras or Courri du Mardi Gras. Both have roots in a different past. Combine this with their cultural difference and you have Mardi Gras New Orleans-style and Mardi Gras Cajun-style.

Carnival: Culture and Tradition

Distinct cultural differences in New Orleans and Acadiana are observable in the way Mardi Gras is celebrated. Contrasting traditions are revealed in their costuming, parading, and merry-making.
Groups of masked revelers move through the countryside on horseback following a course that takes them from household to household in search of offerings for their communal gumbo. After the masked riders complete their course, they straighten their conical hats and patchwork costumes and parade into town to the cheers of the women and children. This is Carnival Day in Mamou, Churchpoint, or Kinder.

Unlike the children in one of these south Louisiana towns, the children of New Orleans wait for the elaborately decorated floats to glide by and with shouts of “throw me something mister,” they reach up to grab handfuls of beads and trinkets. Krewe members spend thousands of dollars and much time preparing the elaborate costumes worn on Mardi Gras Day.

As the Cajuns begin their street dance where everyone is welcomed, the people in New Orleans who are krewe members begin to dress for their lavish ball. Other revelers not lucky enough to garner an invitation to a ball spend the rest of the evening celebrating on the street. Not only are the parades and balls in contrast with one another, but so are many of the traditions. For instance, both cultures practice the tradition of the king cake. The Twelfth Night Revelers, a New Orleans’ krewe, use the king cake tradition to choose their queen and her court. The artificial king cake holds twelve drawers. Eleven drawers have silver beans in them and the twelfth holds a gold one. The lucky girl choosing the drawer with the gold bean is crowned queen, while the girls choosing the drawers with silver beans, serve as her court. The Cajun king cake contains a red bean, symbolizing planting and harvesting. The man getting the slice of cake containing the bean is king for the day (or week).

Teaching Ideas

Individual and cooperative group activities can focus on the creative and intriguing aspects of these festivals. Some of the following are teacher favorites:

1. Mardi Gras lends itself to cooperative learning activities. For a Mardi Gras unit, divide students into groups of four to form krewes. Each group is responsible for naming their krewe. Each krewe must:

• Develop a theme — Each New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe develops its own unique theme from year to year. For instance, “Men and Women of History” was the theme of the 1991 Krewe of Dionysus, and in the same year the Krewe du Monde theme was “Krewe du Monde Remembers the Battle of New Orleans.”

• Design a doubloon — Doubloons, one of the most popular Mardi Gras throws, were introduced to Mardi Gras crowds in 1960 by the Krewe of Rex. These coin-shaped throws which depict the year’s theme, were originally gold and silver but now come in an array of colors.

• Create a throw — Inexpensive trinkets were first thrown to the crowd in 1871 by the Twelfth Night Revelers. Krewe members dressed as Santas threw small presents to the parade crowd. Today, krewes compete to make their throws the most unique. In St. Tammany Parish the Krewe of Mona Lisa and Moon Pie throws moon pies. The Krewe of Choctaw on the West Bank throws beaded Indian dolls and the Krewe of Isis in Metairie throws exclusive coloring books.

• Make a float — The first parade of theme-related floats was held in Mobile, Alabama, and was later adopted by carnival krewes in New Orleans. Have krewes create their own theme-related floats using shoe boxes, wagons, skateboards, or anything that rolls. Get ready to shout, “Throw me something mister!” as your students’ floats roll down the halls of your school. This is a perfect opportunity to integrate other subject areas into your social studies unit. Have students choose subject or literature themes for their floats.

• Solve a true-to-life Mardi Gras problem — Assign a problem to all krewes and have cooperative groups share their solutions. The example is historically based (Ancelet, 1991): In south Louisiana, the courri du Mardi Gras (Cajun Mardi Gras) is a rambunctious affair. The capitaine must retain control of his rowdy revelers. Yet, as they traveled the countryside seeking contributions for the communal gumbo, the rowdy horseback riders alarmed area residents by destroying property and stealing from kitchens. Townspeople wanted to ban this Mardi Gras Day ride. Your job as capitaine of these rowdy revelers is to develop a plan to regain and maintain control of your riders, so that the community will allow your group to continue to celebrate Mardi Gras in the Acadian tradition.

2. Although many Mardi Gras activities focus on krewes, it is also a time shared by the larger community. With the class:

• Create a Mardi Gras Edition of the newspaper — Make each cooperative group will be responsible for one section of the paper (e.g., editorial, front page, comics, society, etc.). Encourage your students to implement the dialect of the area in their articles. Mardi Gras resources should be made available, along with examples of newspapers. A “class paper” may be assembled by the cut and paste method or by using a computer-generated program. An alternative to the class paper might be a travel brochure or guide to the city. Students may include maps of the city, historical facts, or places of interest.

• Enjoy a king cake —
Beginning on January 6, Twelfth Night, or Feast of the Three Kings, New Orleanians look forward to the tasty confectionery delight known as king cake. King cakes originated in medieval times. They represented the gift of the Magi to the Christ Child. In recent times, king cakes have become as much a part of the Mardi Gras celebration as floats and parades. King cakes are also a very important part of celebrations in classrooms throughout the region. Each cake contains a plastic baby and whoever receives it in their piece is responsible for bringing the next king cake. Making the king cake brings some of the Lousiana culture to your classroom.

• Make a mask — Mardi Gras masks can be created by using cast plaster or traditional papier mâché recipes or products. Supply students with an array of materials such as feathers, glitter, old jewelry, sequins, tempera paint, and craft materials of all kinds. Let your students’ imaginations run wild!
While making masks, students can also learn about the history of mask-making in Acadiana and New Orleans. The Acadians brought the tradition of masking with them when they settled in Louisiana in the 1750s. The tradition goes back to the ninth and tenth centuries when peasants traveled from farm to farm begging for food after a long winter. The masks served to protect their dignity. Masks today provide Acadian revelers with anonymity and an excuse to participate in the joviality of the day. Street masking became the vogue in New Orleans in 1835. Today New Orleans carnival-goers don masks of feathers, jewels, and anything that glitters. Prices can run from five dollars to five thousand dollars. As with the Acadians, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrants revel in their hidden identity.

3. Additional research related
to Mardi Gras can also be fun for students:

• Research the carnival season — Compare and contrast differences in traditions, parades, and costumes between the 1900’s and today’s carnival season in New Orleans. Results of research could be presented in the form of a written report, diorama, dramatic interpretation (encourage children to dress the part), comparative drawings, or pictures.

• Research the Acadiana carnival season— How does this carnival season reflect the French Acadian heritage? Results of research here also could be recorded in a variety of ways.

• Create a research word splash— Attach key carnival words to bulletin boards, walls, or doorways to create a vivid vocabulary bonanza. Allow students to choose words to research independently and report findings to class members at social studies time. A partial listing of vocabulary words follow: Carnival (entire period of balls and parades); Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday, final day of the carnival season); krewes (organizations that sponsor parades and balls); ball (invitation-only formal events in which debutantes are introduced); call-out (the only way you get to dance at the ball); Comus (the oldest carnival marching organization in New Orleans); colors (purple stands for justice, green represents faith, and gold means power); mask (standard attire, especially on Fat Tuesday); doubloons (aluminum or wooden disks first thrown in New Orleans by Rex in 1960); Rex (King of Carnival); captain (runs the krewe in New Orleans); Courri du Mardi Gras (route followed by Cajun Mardi Gras horseback riders); capitaine (man who has responsibility for course riders); live chicken (favorite prize for the communal gumbo pot); and gumbo (spicy cajun soup).


Children’s literature is an integral part of any curriculum. However, there are very few quality children’s books available dealing with the Carnival season. We recommend: Mardi Gras (Coil, 1994), Gaston Goes to Mardi Gras (Rice, 1987), and Mimi’s First Mardi Gras (Couvillion & Moore, 1992).
Music is central to the carnival season and should be included in classroom activities. Mardi Gras would not be Mardi Gras without the rhythm and blues of Mardi Gras Mambo (recorded in 1954 by the Hawkettes and their lead singer Art Neville). Other famous rhythm and blues offerings are Carnival Time recorded by Al Johnson and Go to the Mardi Gras recorded by Professor Longhair. Jazz music’s offerings include Al Hirt’s High Society, Rampart Street Parade, and When the Saints Go Marching In (Osborne, 1981). Traditional Mardi Gras music can inspire students to catch the Mardi Gras spirit.
Resources should be made readily available in the classroom.
We highly recommend Cajun Country (Ancelet, Bergeron, Kniffen, & Shoemake, 1989). This book is an excellent student and teacher resource, rich in the detail of Cajun life. The wonderful pictures of the New Orleans-style Mardi Gras in Mardi Gras Celebration (Osborne, 1981), are an appropriate teacher resource but the subject matter of some of the photos is adult in nature. Mardi Gras: A Pictorial History of Carnival in New Orleans (Huber, 1977) is a good student and teacher resource dealing with the history of Carnival.


Each region of the United States has its own special holidays and celebrations. Many of the ideas above could easily be used in the study of other regions. Regional celebrations may also have international connections. For example, Mardi Gras is celebrated not only regionally but internationally, occuring in South America, Europe, and other parts of the world. The study of regions can be an exciting learning experience when approached through the vehicle of fascinating holidays and celebrations.

Ancelet, B. J., Bergeron, H., Kniffen, F. B., & Shoemake, M. A. (1989). Cajun country. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Coil, S. M. (1994). Mardi Gras. New York: Macmillan.
Couvillon, A., & Moore, E. (1992). Mimi’s first Mardi Gras. Gretna: Pelican.
Huber, L. (1977). Mardi Gras: A pictorial history of Carnival in New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican.
Osborne, M. L. (1981). Mardi Gras celebration. New Orleans: Picayune Press.
Rice, J. (1987). Gaston goes to Mardi Gras. Gretna, LA: Pelican.
Stall, G. J. (1984). Proud peculiar New Orleans: The inside story. Baton Rouge, LA: Claitors.
Tallant, R. (1976). Mardi Gras. Gretna, LA: Pelican.
Photographs from Mardi Gras text by Suzanne M. Coil. Photographs copyright© 1994 by Mitchel Osborne. Reprinted by arrangement with Macmillan Publishing Company, a division of Macmillan, Inc..

About the Authors
Mary Allen, has been a substitute teacher in Louisiana for five years and is currently a supervisor of student teachers at Northern Illinois University.
Debbie Blackwell has been a classroom teacher for eighteen years and currently teaches the Academically Gifted at Galvez Middle School in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Previously, she taught fourth grade language arts and has implemented many of these activities in her classroom. She continues her post graduate work at Louisiana State University.

King Cake Recipe

3 cups flour
1/4 cup margine
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar

Dissolve yeast in water. Add milk and sugar, salt, egg, margarine, and half of the flour. Mix until smooth. Add the rest of the flour and knead. Place in a greased bowl and cover. Allow it to rise. Divide the dough into three parts, roll it into tubes and braid. Make a wide ring of the braid. Sprinkle with Mardi Gras colored sugar (yellow, purple, green). Insert a plastic baby or bean. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Enjoy!