The Ides of March are approaching, but there's no need for bewares or soothsayers… Do you know what the Acadian Region of Chéticamp, Grand-Étang, Saint-Joseph-du-Moine et Magré along the Cabot Trail are busy enthusiastically preparing?
Yes, the fabulous festivities of Mi-Carême!
Mi-Carême (Mid-Lent) is a traditional and carnavalesque celebration. Perhaps one of the most heartwarming, amusing and eccentric of winter celebration traditions. It most certainly is one that comes from the heart of a vibrant and colourful culture: Acadie!
Why is it so whimsically topsy-turvy?
Historically, Mi-Carême served as a respite at the midpoint of Lent, a 40 day long period of penitence, abstinence and fasting for Christians. Lent used to be rather austere ordeal, and all sorts of foods were prohibited during this period.
Once the time of Lent has passed, a time of celebration and feast returns with Easter.
Nevertheless, 40 days is a long wait, which is why Mi-Careme became such a popular tradition. Photo: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (oil painting on a wood panel from 1559)
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. This means you'll want to enjoy as many good things as you can up until Ash Wednesday's eve, which as you may have guessed, is Mardi-Gras, the last day of carnaval!
As a striking contrast with Lent, Mi-Carême's purpose is to bring back a joyful taste of carnaval. Mi-Carême's essence or spirit is to playfully and temporarily upturn the strict order imposed by Lent, much like a symbolic breath before taking another "dive" into Lent.
That distinctive joyful, delightfully liberating and topsy-turvy spirit still lives today. How is it that Mi-Carême is still so beloved while Lent has largely disappeared?
« What I love most at Mi-Carême? Seeing everyone having so much fun » says Diane Bourgeois, artist in residence at the Centre de la Mi-Carême. She's absolutely right, Mi-Carême is all about having fun and amusing others while doing so!
Right there is the essence of this tradition, and the Acadian Mi-Carême is so much more than a celebration! It is a wonderful cultural experience, and it perdures in such an authentic and unique way, allowing us to connect with past times. What makes it even more special, is that there are very few places in the world where you can live it as intensely!
Any great occasion calls for great food!
At Mi-Carême, treat yourself to sweet and savoury traditional snacks and meals - honestly, this alone is worth the visit!
Delicious Acadian chicken fricot specially and freshly made with love just for the occasion, fudge (as seen on photo on left), molasses tamarin that is hand pulled just like in past centuries and of courses the tasty molasses cookies (to be eaten with butter for the perfect tasteful experience!). Everything is prepared according to local Acadian tradition, and what a hearty and comforting tastebud delight it is! Other little savoury snacks such as sandwiches are available to enjoy adding to lovely culinary memories.
That's one of the purposes of Mi-Carême: allowing you to enjoy "fat" foods that are otherwise prohibited at this time. The cherry on the cake (or "beulevet on the poutine" if you wanted a more Acadian-oriented idiom) : Enjoying all of these tasty treats in a welcoming and amusing setting, where the air is filled with merriment, laughter, sharing and music!
Ahhhh... and marvellous fiddle music!
Absolutely! The other beloved aspect of Acadian Mi-Carême is the fabulously upbeat and cheerful fiddle music.
It becomes quickly obvious that fiddle music songs - whether they're traditional Acadian songs or not - contribute enormously to spreading this fabulously joyful spirit and all that "joie de vivre", both such defining aspects of Mi-Carême.
Any Acadian Mi-Carême enthusiast will tell you that this festive tradition typically frees them from their worries, problems, "to-do" lists and obligations for a short time. Some even say that what they find most liberating is pretending to be someone entirely different from their usual day-to-day selves.
The interesting thing about fiddle music is that shares that incredibly uplifting and liberating feeling of airiness and carefreeness. "How so" you might ask? The Acadian fiddle is typically played with more speed and enthusiasm than its classical music counterpart, giving its music a very delightful quality. Often, it is accompanied by percussions (such as musical spoons) or simply a foot tapping to the reel beat. So not only is it enchanting to the ear, it's fun-inducive too!
With its very own style and its very own local history and cultural identity, Acadian fiddle music just couldn't be more perfect to accompany the spirit of Mi-Carême!
If Acadian Fiddle music is new to you, you may want to discover music from Marc Boudreau, Gillian Head, Chrissy Crowley, Andrea Beaton and many others.
Oh and mirthful Mi-Carême masks!
Besides delightful Acadian treats and music, what is presumably an even deeply distinctive sign of Mi-Carême is its masks! Both masks and disguises inevitably invite mystery and uncertainty. Remember Mi-Carême's purpose to upturn order and routine?
Still, how are Mi-Carême masks so popular even today ? Here lies the very core - the heart if you will - of this fun and whimsical tradition!
As early as in the 18th century, young men from this Acadian Cape Breton region (as in many other Acadian regions) would "run the Mi-Carême". This involved disguising oneself and joining a small group, which would visit different houses in the community to perform little theatrical and musical performances. These performances were specifically created to amuse the hosts - « les watcheux » as they are called - who were later invited to guess who were behind the masks and disguises. The longer the game lasts, the bigger the laughs and hugs when the hidden faces are revealed!
So, these facetious Mi-Carême runners (or "mi-carêmes for short) would often make it as difficult as possible for the "watcheux" to guess who they were!
Runners would alter their voice and their appearance (by adding a thick layer under their disguise to appear bigger or larger than they really were for example, or would even hunch over to seem smaller). They'd even change the way they walked!
Photo: A Mi-Carême group in Saint-Joseph-du-Moine (Nova-Scotia) in 1930.
The disguises are purposefully planned to prevent any distinctive traits from being seen and recognized; and all identity-concealment strategies are permitted, such as joining a group people you don't usually spend time with, all in the objective of making things as confusing as possible. These are all tricks that are still used today!
Meanwhile, the "watcheux" have also developed strategies over time : they are exceptionally perceptive, and armed with questions worthy of the greatest interrogators they typically show some rather remarkable memory and deduction skills!
The joyful tradition of running la Mi-Carême is still observed today: a few weeks before the date, the families who wish to invite the whimsical mi-carêmes (or « courreux ») into their homes add their name to the list announced on local radio.
As for the festivities organised by the Centre de la Mi-Carême in Grand-Étang, all the fun and traditional aspects of the celebration are included, even the playful guessing games, disguises and whimsical costumed performances.
For the uninitiated, the disguises can seem strange or unbecoming at first. There too lies a core aspect of this tradition: traditionally the mi-carêmes would make their own masques and disguises out of " an old woollen stocking, a sweater's sleeve or cardboard, discarded material or canvas. One would dress in the most original way possible and to be the least recognizable possible" (Chiasson, 1961).
Photo credit Diane Bourgeois : a mi-carême playfully uses a vibrantly colourful handmade papier-mâché mask to conceal his or her identity at Mi-Carême (2019)!
Today's mi-carêmes honour that tradition as they prepare their costumes: their goal remains to fool those around them in the most playful and amusing way ever!
Much strategy and thought go into choosing one's disguises at Mi-Carême!
Imagine having to find for each evening of the festival (which lasts an entire week!) a disguise that covers you from head to toe, and with clothing items and accessories that won't give away your identity whilst amusing those around you!
In that topsy-turvy amusing spirit, it is frequent for mi-carêmes to wear masks of politicians, figures of authority or even nuns and priests to playfully poke fun at them: here again, it's about symbolically throwing over order and authority! Photo credit Diane Bourgeois : nuns and a Quaker pose for a photo at the Mi-Carême Centre (2019)
During the festivities organised by the Mi-Carême Centre, it's not only about the disguises. Importance is given to the costumed theatrical performed by mi-carêmes. Sometimes, the fun will include voting for the best, most amusing or most impressive performance.
Perhaps the most impressive fun fact about it all, is how this specific Acadian region in Cape Breton has proudly and religiously - pardon the pun! - celebrated Mi-Carême since 1785, which is the year where Acadians settled along the western shores of the Cabot Trail following the Expulsion and Great Upheaval of Acadians in the 18th century.
This means that the members of the communities of Saint-Joseph-Du-Moine, Grand-Étang and Chéticamp have celebrated Mi-Carême each winter without interruption for well over two centuries! To such a point in fact, that Mi-Carême festivities no longer last one day but a whole week: commencing the Sunday evening right through to the following Saturday evening. As you can likely imagine, that is a LOT of disguises to prepare, since the guessing games start over with new outfits every evening - to everyone's delight!
Photo: a group of mi-carêmes from Chéticamp circa 1945
Since 1785, only the pandemic-related confinement and social distancing precautions of 2020, 2021 and 2022 stood in the way of mi-carêmes and the "watcheux" from gathering. Even then, virtual live-music celebrations organized by the Mi-Carême Centre made it possible to share the joys of this tradition with the largest number possible over social media!
Mi-Carême 2023, however, will be the year of the first post-pandemic Mi-Carême "reunion": an in-person celebration at last!
Excitement builds at the prospect of finally enjoying and sharing one of the most beloved, heartfelt, amusing and oldest of French traditions again!
Indeed, several historians agree that the origins of Mi-Carême could well trace all the way back to the European Middle-Ages.
Nope, Mi-Carême is no flimsy-whimsy tradition! The spirit of the Acadian Mi-Carême is as vibrant as ever, and beautiful days lay ahead.
Long live Mi-Carême!
Do you know the "cousin" celebrations of Acadian Mi-Carême ? This short article explores 7 facts you may not know about them!
Ooooh! by the way, talking of marvellous masks of Mi-Carême, have you ever visited our Artisanal Boutique?
Discover all sorts of fun masks! All are 100% locally made, whether they are hand-painted or handmade from scratch with papier-mâché by our artists!
For further reading:
Anselme Chiasson, Chéticamp, History and Acadian Traditions, Moncton, Éditions des Aboiteaux, 1961 (extracts of the book can be found here in French: https://sites.ustboniface.ca/francoidentitaire/acadie/texte/T0812.htm)