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History of the Cajuns: Encyclopedia of Cajun Life

The New Year

    New Year’s day is particularly consecrated to visits and wishes of “Bonne Annee!”  This custom is known to go back to the Romans.  On January 1, people would wish each other happiness and health and exchanged gifts which they called “bonnes étrennes.”
    Nowadays (1901) the custom of New Year’s gifts is observed only in the family circle, and though in towns a great deal of enthusiasm for visiting is still shown, in the rural areas people do nothing more than wish each other a happy new year when they happen to meet.  However, in some places, families get together, often beginning on  New Year’s Eve.  On the day itself, good wishes are exchanged, the young enjoy themselves, the older play cards and drink together.  But what is noble, touching and Christian about this day is the sight of people who have long been enemies seizing the opportunity which the day presents to be reconciled and to wish each other good fortune and prosperity.
    It is on this day that a young man who wishes to marry often asks his sweetheart’s parents for permission to wed.  A woman or girl avoids receiving the first good wishes of the day from someone of her own sex; if she does, the new year’s wish will bring bad luck.  Meeting a woman or girl on the morning of New Year’s Day is thought an ominous thing.

Kings’ Day (January 6)

    Almost all families gather on the eve of this day at supper to elect by lot the “king of the bean;” but it is especially among the common folk that the full manner of observing the ceremony is preserved.
    After supper, a cake is brought out.  It is round, and encloses a bean.  It is cut into as many pieces (plus one) as there are members of the family, including the hired hands.  The pieces are placed in a sack.  The youngest member of the family withdraws the pieces of cake; he begins by giving the first piece to God.  This is given to the next poor man who comes to the door and asks for help.  The second piece goes to the eldest of the family and from thence on to the youngest.
    The one whose piece contains the bean which had been placed along one of the edges of the cake is acclaimed king.  All the diners treat him with honor and must watch him attentively so as not to fail to cry out “Le Roi boit!” (The King drinks) whenever he does so.  Failure to conform will result in having the face besmuttered by the rest of the party.
    Another custom of this day is that a girl wishing to know who will be her future husband places her garter beneath her pillow on the eve of the feast, and getting into bed recites this prayer:

  O grand sint Francois!
  C’est aujourd’hui la veille des Rois.
  En mettant le pied sur ce bois,
  Je te prie de me faire voir cette nuit
  Celui que je dois avoir pour mari.

  O great St. Francis!
  Today is Kings’ Eve.
  Putting my foot on this wood
  I pray you to make me see tonight
  The one whom I must have for husband.

 A variant has the girl bowing three times to the moon, and saying to the moon three times without laughing, “Beautiful moon, I greet you!”  The moon then assumes the appearance of the one she will wed.

Valentines Day

    Love letters are written by young people on St. Valentine’s Day.  This custom comes from England but is much changed.  On the eve of St. Valentine’s the young celebrate in an ancient custom a feast which is a symbol of the renewal of nature and the inborn desire of all living beings to perpetuate their kind.  A number of boys and girls gather.  They write their own names or pseudonyms on individual bits of paper.  These are rolled up and are drawn from a hat, the girls picking from the boys’ names and vice versa.  Thus each boy meets a girl whom he calls “valentine” and each girl a boy whom she calls her “valentin.”  Often these valentines are seen to form a permanent and happy union. 

Mardi Gras

    In the rural areas, carnival has lost its former animation; it is marked nowadays (1901) only by some unimaginative masquerading and my dances where the joyous madness of yesteryear is rarely to be met.

March 1

    It is customary for those wishing to know the identity of their future spouse to rise at the stroke of midnight on March 1, and as the clock strikes, walk three paces forward from the bed, while saying, “Good day, March, from March to March make me see in sleep the wife (or husband) whom I will have in real life.”  Then one goes back to bed walking backward, goes to sleep and dreams.  The person who appears is the future spouse.

The Poisson d’Avril or April Fish

    The first day of April is dedicated to mystifications of all sorts, to pretended gifts, false news, false joys, false alarms.  People are sent to houses to which they have not been in fact invited; everybody looks for dupes, but at the same time remains on guard lest despite precautions he himself be taken in.

Good Friday

    On the evening of this day, men and children in a group go singing from door to door some verses of (a) complainte ... .  They ordinarily receive eggs, butter, etc. which have been set aside for them.  We have seen this very old custom practiced on Bayou Lafourche before the Civil War.

Gunshots and Birthdays

    Guns are fired a number of times on Christmas eve at night, on New Year’s day, at Corpus Christi, and on family birthdays and saint’s name days.  The birth of a son is announced by three shots, preferably fired by the father of the new-born, whereas a daughter is announced by two.
    Soon all the women of the neighborhood arrive at the new mother’s house to inquire as to her condition and offer their help.  Exactly one year later, there takes place a meal attended by godparents, relatives and neighbors.  The custom is repeated annually.  When the child is one year old, he is given a young cow.  Of the calves she bears only the females are kept.  These, as it were, double the capital each year.  The youth thus finds himself owner of a little herd which will serve to set up a new household.

“Fete de la Roulaison” or Grinding Festival

    When the last crop, sugarcane, is harvested, there is held a feast at which the rules of sobriety are often neglected.  People say, “the “roulaison” comes only once a year,” which is as much as to say that one is then permitted to forget his troubles for a while.  These meals are followed by dancing.

“The Clocheteur des Trépassés” or Bellman of the Dead

    Formerly, at night on the eve of All Souls’ Day (November 2), the church bells were wildly pealed, and people ran about the streets of the village ringing hand bells and saying in a loud and serious voice these words:
  Réveillez, réveillez, 
  Entre vous gens qui dormez,
  Pensez a l’éternité!
  Priez Dieu pour les fideles trépassés.
  Requiescat in pace.

  Awake! Awake!
  Those among you who sleep;
  Think of eternity!
  Pray God for the faithful dead.
  Rest in peace!

“Charivari” or Shivaree

    When two people of disparate age marry and when a widow marries a bachelor or a widower a single girl, as well as when spouses of appropriate ages fail to provide the expected entertainment at their wedding, there gathers at evening a crowd furnished with skillets, kettles and other pans of brass or copper.  They beat on these with shovels or tongs and go tumultuously to the house of the couple.  Increasing their noise, they dance before the house shouting, “charivari, charivari!”
    To bring the noise to an end, the couple must offer a collation as well, as the promise of a ball.  If a widow marries a widower they are exempt from this burlesque serenade.


    The “barbecu” is an open-air celebration during which an entire steer is roasted and eaten.  Such celebrations usually are connected with a political meeting.


    Families visit each other even when separated by twelve to twenty-five miles.  They travel in oxcarts or horse-drawn wagons.  Often numbering a dozen or more, the traveling family, find at their host’s other visitors in equal number.  At table it is common to find twenty-five or thirty-five guests.  Usually the visitors remain some thirty hours.  During this period many matters are discussed, news of their respective neighborhoods, weddings which have occurred or soon will take place, whose crops are the best, who raises the most livestock, who has good horses, or who best looks after his “habitation.”  They talk of this man’s having a good store of corn, that other’s growing ribbon cane, of the neighbor who is putting out more cotton.  They discuss the production of various commodities, the quality of soils, the best means of cultivation; they talk of drainage, the condition of the roads and of taxation.


    On Christmas eve all the members of a family gather at the house of the father or eldest.  Those who live far away, think nothing of traveling long distances to be there.  At supper the head of the house takes a full wine glass and drinks to the health of all his family.  This toast is repeated at the end of the meal.  Everyone else in turn drinks to the members of the family, including those absent.  When supper is over, hymns or carols are sung.  Then they play a game which is played only that night.  This is how it goes: You attach to the ceiling a piece of thread which will hang just as high as the mouth.  At the other end you fasten a pin on which is fixed a hot coal.  The young people make a ring about the hanging coal and each one blows with all his might toward the person opposite, who does likewise.  If one party laughs or blows less hard than his opponent, the coal touches his face and everybody laughs. 

God Bless.
Cajuns in the 18th Century   •  Cajuns in the 19th Century  • Cajuns in the 20th Century  •••  Encyclopedia of Cajun Life
God Bless.
Copyright © 1997-2000 Tim Hebert