New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration is heavily influenced by Cajun culture.
New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration is heavily influenced by Cajun culture.

Cajun culture refers to the mix of tradition and religion that has evolved in Southern Louisiana over centuries of cross-fertilization of colonists from around the world. Catholicism is the dominant religion practiced by today's Cajun people, but it is heavily influenced by folklore and rituals particular to the region. Known for its French-speaking culture, distinctive cuisine and festive Mardi Gras celebration, Cajun culture holds a special place in the American imagination.

Religious History

Beginning in the 17th century, settlers from a variety of countries started arriving to colonize southern Louisiana's bayous, swamps and farmland. Immigrants from French-speaking Haiti and Canada set up plantations next to Creoles of French-Spanish descent, and a booming slave trade brought in thousands of slaves from Africa and the West Indies. Each demographic brought with them a tradition of folklore and religious practices, but eventually early Catholic settlers established numerous parishes and their faith became the region's dominant belief system.

Catholicism

Today "the Cajun-Creole brand of Latin Catholicism is characteristic of South Louisiana," according to Marcia Gaudet who teaches folklore at the University of Louisiana. Thus "cultural Catholicism" is a common descriptor of Cajun beliefs. While Catholic Cajuns revere the Bible and their front yards display statues of the Virgin Mary, "unofficial religious customs . . . are certainly a part of Roman Catholicism as it is practiced by Cajuns," says Gaudet. One theory for the mix of folk religion and Catholicism is that Catholic priests were scarce in the remote Cajun region until the 20th century.

Folk Religion

Adding to the Catholic belief that unbaptized souls do not reach heaven, Cajun folklore maintains that the unbaptized wander the Earth as ghosts or "cauchemar," meaning nightmares. Cajuns also worship a number of local folk saints for their religious or healing work, and the holy cross from Christ's crucifixion takes on a "religio-magical purpose" in Cajun folk tradition, according to Gaudet. For Cajuns, the cross is a powerful talisman that can ward off storms and protect a home from hurricanes.

Mardi Gras

The official Catholic holiday of Mardi Gras -- or 'Fat Tuesday' in French -- finds particularly exuberant celebration in the melting pot of Cajun culture. Originally a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, early Christians adopted it as an official holiday held prior to Ash Wednesday. In Cajun Louisiana, parades with elaborately decorated floats and marching bands are hallmarks of a rich Mardi Gras tradition that has permeated mainstream American culture, especially in New Orleans where Cajun influence is strong.