Once Normal, Now Weird
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
It's not just Halloween we celebrate in South Louisiana!
Once upon a time, Halloween and All Saints Day weren’t just about costumes and parties and candy. They were about sweetly told family stories.
I am an Acadian Creole — “Cajun” or South Louisiana French American — by blood, earth, and disposition; my ancestors on my Mother’s side were Acadian Creoles. I was born within the culture, and I am blessed with a “joie de vie” personality.
In my Cajun culture of South Louisiana (and many other cultures around the world, I have learned), late afternoon on “All Hallow’s Eve” (Oct. 31) primarily meant preparing for the next morning: All Saints Day, Nov. 1. For my Grandpa, who lived next door to me, this meant eating his traditional Halloween supper of coush-coush, a basic cornmeal dish blended with anything you pleased. Grandpa liked to add milk, bacon, Tabasco, and cane syrup to his coush-coush with all ingredients produced within 25 miles of his home.
When I asked him why he always ate coush-coush on Halloween, he told me that this modest meal reminded him of what our ancestors had to eat in hard times, although now we considered this food a quaint treat of sorts. I ate it because it tasted good and made me feel more “Cajun,” since few of my non-Cajun friends ate coush-coush.
After supper, Grandpa prepared a big bucket of whitewash, assembled paintbrushes of all sizes, and brought a second bucket of soap and cleaning brushes. This little ritual built excitement for me, his eldest grandchild because I knew an outing with Grandpa the next day would bring adventure and stories about my relatives that were funny, sad, and intriguing.
I went Trick-or-Treating with friends after helping Grandpa find the various brushes and placing lots of old rags in the trunk of his car, but I was more excited about my outing with him the next day. Oh, I enjoyed the candy gathering and munching and “folderol” (as he would describe it) that accompanied the carousing with friends that night, but that was never the highlight of Halloween for me. It was imagining the next day that really made it difficult to fall asleep that night!
After a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits and homemade biscuits on Nov. 1, we took a ride to the local cemetery as Grandpa spoke about whose graves we would be visiting in a few minutes. Once there, we walked our materials to the gravesites and began our work. We washed the graves first, rinsed them, and then dried them off with the old rags. As we began applying the fresh coat of whitewash, Grandpa would begin talking about whoever’s grave we were painting.
“This is your great-great-grandfather Fergus (pronounced “fair-JHUICE,” with the jh having the same sound as the s in treasure or measure). He was so fair when dealing with family and other disputes that folks used to say ‘Fergus est juste’ making a rhyme,” he would tell me. “Juste” was pronounced “jhuiced” which proclaimed Fergus as just.
At another grave, Grandpa identified its occupant as “Tante Marie” (Aunt Marie), who loved to play practical jokes on everyone. She would balance pillows atop partially-opened doors so that they fell on the heads of anyone walking through.
On yet another grave, he stopped, knelt, said a prayer and wiped his moist eyes. “This is where my mother is buried. I was the youngest of her nine children.”
This ritual went on for about two hours, until all the graves were freshly painted, gleaming white in the bright sun. After that, we returned home and prepared to go to Mass, since Nov. 1 was a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics when we were obliged to attend services.
Each year my Grandpa managed to recall a different set of stories for each relative, and I carry these stories in my heart to this day. That’s the sweetest thing of all about my Halloween memories, not the candy.
Joe Paris is a journalist, storyteller, and master gardener and naturalist. A native of Crowley, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun Country, he now calls Lafayette home.