Chéticamp and the mi-carêmes


We are traveling north on Rte. 19 along the fabulous Cabot Trail, which is, after all, why we had come to Cape Breton Island in the first place.

After traveling through miles of hayfields and rolling hills, we are suddenly beside the sea. Houses are scattered haphazardly across the dunes. They are tidy little boxes with dips rather than peaks in the roofline.

From hayfields and rolling hills to sea and sand dunes

What happened here? I think. This looks different.

Isn’t this the eternal query of the stranger: What is this? Why is it like this? Where did this come from? What happened here?

Then we make things up about whatever it is we don’t understand. We create plausible stories. Rational explanations. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, someone local sets us straight, usually quashing all our explanations.

And odd rooflines

I eventually found out that this town looks different because it’s Acadian, not Celtic, like the other tidy burgs I’d passed through.

The town is Chéticamp, gateway to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is the place where you gas up, stock up, and grab your last hit of culture because once you’re in the park, the amenities are over, folks. (Not that the distance is so far, but it is so fetching that you’ll want to take your time.)

The main road through Chéticamp is along the sea. Lining it is a mélange of heelworn establishments for ordinary folks and slightly more gussied-up shops trying to turn a trick with the tourists.

Signs are now in French rather than Gaelic. Streets have become les rues, and old St. Pete’s, the local church, is Paroisse Saint-Pierre.

“For most of us here, 90 percent I’d say, French is our first language,” said Connor, a young docent at Trois Pignons, a tiny museum that I was instructed not to miss. (If you go to Chéticamp, I am instructing you not to miss it, either.)

Connor ‘splaining stuff to me while he practices his rughooking technique.

Apparently, the hardy Acadians arrived in Chéticamp after the massive British deportation when it was once again safe (or perhaps merely legal) to return after 1765. It was a bootstrap life for generations—fishing, farming, making-do.

And, eventually, rughooking. More on that later.

Now it has a lively musical scene, some restaurants, a great bakery, cafes, and shops full of artisanal items, mostly the hooked rugs I was mentioning.

The Frog Pond Cafe. Great coffee, Incredible pastries. Impressive gift shop. And a nice ambiance.

Plus a harp player. For ambiance, don’cha know?

Julia enjoying the vibe at the Frog Pond

Chéticamp is also where Mi-Carême is celebrated with gusto. In fact, it’s one of the few places in the world that still observes this medieval French festival.

Mi-carême means “the middle of Lent.”

Once upon a time, back in the Motherland, the jolly French, becoming weary of Lent’s long and arduous course, decided to break up the gloomy season with a party. As if Mardi Gras weren’t enough. Accordingly, on the third Thursday of Lent, mi-carême is celebrated with music, food, drink…

…and costumes.

Yes, these are traditional mi-careme masks.

People disguise themselves and travel from house to house where food and drink and musical entertainment is provided. The hosts must try to guess which friend or relation is behind the sometimes elaborate disguise.

The event became so popular in this Acadian region of Cape Breton that, not only was the tradition kept alive, but it has expanded to fill an entire week smack in the middle of Lent.

On Sunday evening, everyone gathers at the Acadian Center in Chéticamp for the first party: Laissons Entrer la Mi-Carême. That’s like the opening bell. Throughout the week, the costumed mi-carémes travel around visiting the pre-announced party houses.

Apparently, the sheer number of mi-carémes sometimes overwhelms the hospitality of their hosts, who don’t fancy all those partiers traipsing through the house in the middle of February, so partie s often happen in  garages now.

How many people dress up?” I asked Connor. “Hundreds,” he said.

The whole she-bang winds up on Saturday night with the Gala de la Mi-Carême at the parish hall in St. Joseph-du-Moine, a neighboring village.

Sounds like fun, hey? This is what happens when the tourists go home–the really good parties happen. Bummer.

You can see the masks and learn more about the festival at Le Centre de la Mi-Carême, right on the Cabot Trail in Chéticamp. Not as good as the real thing, but…

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8 Responses to Chéticamp and the mi-carêmes

  1. Armand Le Fort 31 January, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    Very good story. Even though I live n Northern Ontario, I was born and raised in Cheticamp, and I still love to read stories and see photos and videos of the cherished homeland.

    • Kate Convissor 1 February, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

      Northern Ontario is pretty darned sweet, too. We passed through part of it on our way to Quebec City. (Also, being based in Michigan, you’re our nearest neighbor.) But, I’ll bet you miss Cape Breton Island. What a unique part of the world. Glad I could remind you of home. Cheticamp was a really fun place to visit.

  2. Yvette McPhee 31 January, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Great write up on something so dear to my heart. So happy to hear these comments! Since you believe we Frenchies have it going on i’d like to share something….this summer as part of a new program at Le Centre de la Mi-carême they will be having “les mardis du Mi-carême”, which means every Tuesday evening the Mi-carêmes are let free…….hope you can join us!

    • Kate Convissor 1 February, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      Now THAT would be something to see–for all of us who can’t venture to Cape Breton Island during Lent. Great idea. “Laissez le bons temps roulez,” as they say in New Orleans.

  3. Dee 30 January, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Kate, I feel like I’m on the trip with you and loving every minute of it.

  4. Maria | Acceleratedstall 27 January, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Now that sounds like fun, “People disguise themselves and travel from house to house where food and drink and musical entertainment is provided.”

    • Kate Convissor 28 January, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      Doesn’t it? In the middle of winter. In the middle of Lent–let’s have a party! Those Frenchys got it going on.