By Michael Cooper
The traditions of one’s youth are not only bred in the bone but also provide lasting and cherished memories that are always worth revisiting. Living in the hamlet of Lascelles, I hold dear to my heart my Louisiana roots; its cooking, its music, its joie de vivre. In this time of physical isolation, we all need a little joie de vivre, so travel back with me to celebratory days of Easter in Louisiana.
Cajun Easter Tradition
Growing up in a large family in south Louisiana, I was surrounded by Cajun traditions handed down to my mother by her parents and grandparents. A great Easter tradition my family enjoyed was coming together to “pacque” eggs, pronounced pocking and comes from the French word for Easter, pâcques. Egg paqueing is a game that’s been played with family and friends for generations on Easter Sunday in Louisiana. It’s a true Cajun tradition.
The basic idea of the game was to determine whose boiled chicken egg is the hardest as two people tap their eggs together until one cracks. This was called Grand boute á grand boute and tit boute á tit boute. This means that you can only knock similar ends against each other. An egg has a large rounded end and a smaller, pointier end. You can only knock two large ends together or the two smaller ends.
In my family, we would boil, dye, and decorate dozens of eggs on Good Friday and then bring them to my grandparents’ house on Easter Sunday. My aunts, uncles, and cousins would do the same and we’d all pacque throughout the day. The cracked eggs were sometimes used during the family Easter Egg Hunt and eventually taken home and used to make potato salad, deviled eggs, egg salad, etc.
Another big tradition in my family was eating crawfish. Crawfish Season and Easter overlap in Louisiana, which means there are plenty available for Fridays in Lent, including Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
The fact is that Good Friday is the biggest day for crawfish in New Orleans. The people observe the strict prohibition against eating meat on the solemn day by buying, boiling, and eating more crawfish than on any other day of the year. The demand for crawfish on Good Friday is so great that most seafood markets will not sell to a customer who has not placed an advance order and paid a deposit. Of course, no seafood markets are closed, and customers line up and wait at the markets for hundreds of pounds of crawfish to be boiled or for trucks to arrive from southwest Louisiana loaded with bags of live crawfish.
With crawfish in hand backyard burners are soon roaring with big pots of water in which the crawfish will be cooked. Washtubs are filled with clean water to purge the live crawfish, that is, to let them gurgle and spit in clean water to get the dirt and debris out before they are thrown live into the boiling cauldrons.
Before the Cajuns migrated to Louisiana from Acadia in Nova Scotia, Native Americans in the South enjoyed the tasty and abundant crawfish found in the Atchafalaya Basin and in swampy areas throughout south Louisiana. With their love of peppers and spices, the Cajuns perfected the art of cooking crawfish which are eaten throughout the Easter season.
To see a video on this tradition, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q55kJXkK1a8
Rare African Easter Tradition of Rural Louisiana
African slaves were brought directly to Louisiana starting in 1719, many from the Senegambia region. The Mississippi Valley of Louisiana was like the Senegal Valley where the enslaved people had been rice-growers.
Louisiana has several Easter traditions that date back to the antebellum era. One of them is a religious dance that had been performed in Africa and then came to the antebellum South. This circular dance ritual was often performed in Congo Square in New Orleans on Sundays. Now this very rare tradition can only be seen in the rural Delta region and I have only ever seen it once.
When I was teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana back in the late 1970s, a colleague that worked in the Fine Arts department invited me to go with her to a small rural church on the Saturday night before Easter.
The Mass started with everyone in the church singing an Easter hymn. The church’s hardwood floor was an integral part of the Mass because it shakes and creates a drumming effect as parishioners sang and stomped their feet. The church lights were dimmed, and a procession of women dressed in white dresses marched into the aisle with their leader holding a big banner that is believed to represent Christ’s cross.
The women carried in 12 lamps and put them on a table placed in the middle of the sanctuary. They also carried in 12 white cakes with red wine and placed them on the table. Twelve represents either the 12 disciples or the 12 tribes of Israel. The women moved counter-clockwise around the table as they once did in their African dance traditions.
I was told a white dress is worn by the women on this occasion because it is symbolic of the women who witnessed the rising of Jesus Christ from the grave. The women praise the lord as their risen saviour and represent Christ’s resurrection.
As with communion, the cakes and wine symbolized the body and blood of Christ. The women also placed hard boiled eggs on the table, symbolic of the breaking of the grave that held Christ.
At the church my colleague introduced me to her 4-year old son who was learning this tradition from her 102-year-old grandfather. Sadly, I know it is very rare now to be a part of this old Easter tradition that was practiced in the rural plantation churches by enslaved Africans. I am very grateful I had the opportunity to experience it.
You can still go to Congo Square in New Orleans on occasions to hear this old time Gospel music. Here are a few links to some:
New Orleans Gospel Soul Children – When the Saints Go Marching In
‘Mother’ Mary Margaret Parker – Glory Glory Halleluja
Sister Idelle Williams – Let It Shine For Me
George Lewis – He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
Kid Thomas Valentine – This Little Light of Mine
Sadie Goodson – Nearer My God to Thee
New Orleans Street Gospel Singers – I Will Be Your God
Easter in New Orleans
As a child growing up in New Orleans, my Easter always included going to Mass with my mother, lots of chocolate, crawfish boils and parades. New Orleans is still mostly a Catholic town and church services are a big part of Easter.
Every Easter Sunday my mother, little brother and sisters and I went to Mass, usually at St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of the Vieux Carré. Following Mass, we went back home for a noon-time brunch after which we headed to the French Quarter for the Easter parades. The celebrations ended with a crawfish boil in the evening with uncles, aunts and cousins, usually in City Park across from my grandparent’s house.
The parades were filled with octogenarian showgirls extraordinaire (usually women that had worked on Bourbon Street in their prime), old convertibles, mule-drawn carriages, colourful floats, marching bands, and tons of Easter trinkets that were thrown to the hundreds of revelers that don rabbit ears and costumes. Awards were given out for the best Easter bonnets, Easter baskets and overall Easter attire such as white linen dresses and seersucker suits. People also loved to show off colourful fashions and tight-fitting outfits. Anyone could join in and some of the bonnet entries were pretty outlandish. The crowd voted for the winners, and you could almost certainly expect to hear impromptu renditions of Irving Berlin’s classic song for the occasion, “Easter Parade.”
The Easter parades remain a big part of the culture bringing crowds every year. For those who want to take a break from the crowds Champagne brunches can be enjoyed at famous New Orleans restaurants with some of the best food you will ever eat.
In later years the Gay Easter Parade put on by the city’s LGBT community has become very popular but lets face it New Orleans has been a gay city since in founding and has never hidden it. Being nowhere near as wild or extravagant as a Mardi Gras, it is rather family-friendly if you are open minded which most people in this city are. The parade takes a leisurely route through the French Quarter, passing every gay bar and many gay-owned restaurants. People in the parade ride horse-drawn carriages or floats while wearing showy versions of their Easter Sunday finest. Don’t be surprised if you see a gaggle of motorcycle dudes in leather and Easter bonnets roar by. Spectators can expect to catch plenty of beads and other throws. There is also an annual Easter Bonnet Contest at Good Friends Bar, an LGBT neighbourhood bar at the corner of Dauphine and St. Ann streets in the French Quarter.
Let’s just say no place knows how to have more fun on Easter than the “City that care forgot”. I have always loved how all this fun is mixed with the Catholic faith. If you want to know how the Catholic faith has influenced the culture and fabric of New Orleans get the book, The Joy of Y’at Catholicism, by Earl J. Higgins.