On The Bayou


Fred’s Lounge is a small place with a plain red-brick facade on the main street in Mamou, Louisiana. When I was there, late last December, Fred’s was packed. Members of a five-piece Cajun band took up most of the space inside and ignited the room with their rowdy fiddle music. Right in front of them a dozen couples bounced elbow to elbow on the tiny dance floor, while a waitress wove her way through, carrying trays of beer to two booths in the corner. A waist-high barrier separated the dance floor from the bar area, where patrons were clustered three-deep under drooping tinsel and plastic pine boughs, smoking and talking noisily while not being served; the female bartender was taking a turn as the band’s lead vocalist. I pushed my way through to the waitress to ask her a question, and she smiled warmly and shook her head to say she couldn’t help me. I was looking for breakfast. It was ten in the morning.

The Cajuns have a reputation for being serious partyers, and like most stereotypes, this one has more than a grain of truth to it. After all, the unofficial slogan of these French-speaking people is Laissez les bons temps rouler , or “Let the good times roll.” The area’s Mardi Gras celebrations and springtime music festival draw thousands of people every year. And the Cajun culture has been introduced to the American mainstream largely through its festive, spicy cuisine and the rollicking, danceable music that was popularized by the movie The Big Easy . After years of sampling this food and music myself in inauthentic urban settings, I thought the balmy winter holiday season would be a good time to finally go south to “Acadiana,” the Cajun bayou region of southern Louisiana, and experience the real thing.

Oddly, throughout my four-day visit I came across relatively few Christmas or New Year’s celebrations. According to Trent Angiers, editor of the region’s monthly Acadiana Profile , most Cajuns consider Christmas “a solemn holiday in the Christian religion,” so much of its observance takes place in private. In fact, despite their outward emphasis on joie de vivre , the Cajuns are a very private, industrious, and strong-willed people. And their history is a remarkable story of survival and independence.

Today’s Cajuns are descendants of a group of French Catholics who lived on the coastal canals of western France in the late sixteenth century. Fleeing terrible religious warfare, they emigrated to Nova Scotia beginning in 1605 and settled on the peninsula of L’Acadie, or Acadia. (The term Cajun is a bastardization of Acadian .) For generations they lived in relative prosperity and isolation while French and British forces battled over control of the region.

The British prevailed, finally, in 1713 and slowly became intolerant of their French-Catholic citizens. Tensions reached a tragic climax forty years later. On August 1,1755, without apparent warning, Gov. Charles Lawrence ordered the immediate expulsion of all Acadians from the area. The defenseless farmers were summarily rounded up and loaded onto ships that then randomly scattered the outcasts in cities along the Eastern seaboard. In the process communities were destroyed, families broken up, and lovers separated.

The story is told most beautifully in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem Evangeline, which traces the sad wanderings of two Acadian lovers who were divided during the expulsion:

There disorder prevailed, and the tumult and stir of embarking. Busily plied the freighted boats; and in the confusion Wives were torn from their husbands, and mothers, too late, saw their children Left on the land, extending their arms, with wildest entreaties.

When the Acadians were let off in colonial cities, they met with almost universal hostility. Most towns were hardly more tolerant than the British had been. As Longfellow wrote, “Scattered were they, like flakes of snow … / Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city.”

In search of a haven where they could live in peace and seclusion, the Acadians began migrating to the southern French province of Louisiana. The first bedraggled groups arrived in the late 175Os and settled in the vast, unpopulated bayou area beyond New Orleans, a terrain that resembled their ancestral French home.

By 1785 more than three thousand Acadians occupied the region Longfellow described as “a maze of sluggish and devious waters.” The bayous and vast Atchafalaya Basin bound the Acadians together, even as they isolated them from the world.

These waters still occupy the physical and psychological centers of the Cajun culture, and the public Christmas traditions that do exist are generally set around them. On Christmas Eve locals gather on the banks of the bayous to watch a series of magnificent Yuletide bonfires. The pyres are ignited at precisely 7:00 P.M. on December 24, and they can be seen for miles blazing well into the night. Also, in the Cajun version of “The Night Before Christmas,” Santa Claus floats through the bayou instead of the nighttime sky. As the Cajun narrator relates, in his distinctive, clipped accent: