History of Mardi Gras Beads
By: Amanda Hermes
Mardi Gras is a celebration steeped in tradition and culture, one of America's biggest parties of the year. One of the most popular customs of Mardi Gras is the throwing of colorful beads from parade floats to the crowd on onlookers below, a tradition with an interesting history.
Origins of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras originated with pagan Roman Carnival celebrations that took place in mid-February and celebrated the end of winter. Christian leaders sought to incorporate and adapt existing pagan traditions with Christian beliefs, thinking it would be easier than trying to abolish them completely, so they continued the Carnival season. It was extended from the Twelfth Night after Christmas (January 6) to the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. During Lent, Christians participate in sacrifice, penance and fasting in imitation of Christ's last days as preparation for Easter, his resurrection. The day before Ash Wednesday, known as Fat Tuesday, is traditionally seen as a last day of revelry before Lent. Mardi Gras (which is French for Fat Tuesday) had been celebrated in Paris since the Middle Ages with parades and masked balls.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
The Mardi Gras tradition was exported to America in 1699, when French explorers settled at the mouth of the Mississippi River and established the city of New Orleans (and also Mobile, Ala., where Mardi Gras is also hugely popular). New Orleans was under French rule for most of the next century and still has a rich French culture today. Parades, balls and celebrations were organized by secret societies called krewes, which began in the 1700s. Some of the oldest New Orleans krewes are the Twelfth Night Revelers, Zulu, Comus and Rex. Rex started the tradition of the King of Carnival and established purple, green and gold as the official colors of Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras Parades
According to the website mardigrasneworleans.com, Mardi Gras parades began in the 1830s with street processions of masked revelers on horseback or in carriages. Today, they are convoys of elaborate floats featuring costumed characters. The first recorded instances of paraders tossing trinkets, such as baubles and sugar-coated almonds, to the crowd of onlookers came in the 1840s, writes Brendan Koerner in his article, "Where Do Mardi Gras Beads Come From?" According to Koerner, the custom of pitching souvenirs, or "throws," to onlookers during parades might come from two sources. In Pagan rituals celebrating the end of winter, peasants threw milled grain into fields as an offering of gratitude to deities for helping them survive the cold season. Carnival festivals in Renaissance Europe involved throwing various objects.
Since the 1870s, many objects have been tossed from floats, including the collectible aluminum doubloons, plastic cups, candy and Frisbees. But in the 1880s, Rex krewe began throwing inexpensive glass beads on strings to parade goers. Koerner writes that the first to toss beads was a man dressed as Santa Claus. The beads were an instant hit and were soon adopted by all krewes to throw in their parades. According to John Roach's article, "The Rich History of Mardi Gras's Cheap Trinkets," early glass beads were imported from Czechoslovakia or Japan. Today, beads are made of plastic or aluminum and mostly imported from China. The first beads were all purple, green, and gold, but today you can find them in all colors and featuring almost anything you can imagine: sports teams, food, flowers, rainbows, animals, smiley faces. Some beads even have flashing lights. Mardi Gras is a big business for New Orleans, and krewe members each spend $800 to $2,000 on throws every year.
Bartering for Beads
Today, beads are by far the most popular Mardi Gras parade throws. They're sold year round as a symbol of New Orleans' French Quarter, where Mardi Gras reaches its most raucous heights. In other parts of the city, parades are festive family events and balls are lavish and elegant, but on Bourbon Street (which isn't actually part of the parade route due to its narrowness), Mardi Gras is one big, drunken party. This is where the practice of bartering for beads started, with girls screaming, "Throw me something, mister!" while baring their breasts in exchange for beads. However, flashing is no more a Mardi Gras tradition than "people who get drunk and pass out on Bourbon street are following tradition," according to mardigrasneworleans.com, and baring your body is certainly not a requirement for attaining a souvenir. Flashing for beads started sometime in the 1970s when young people who flocked to New Orleans lost their inhibitions in the Carnival atmosphere, but native New Orleaneans are quick to point out that the true Mardi Gras takes place throughout the city and its suburbs, not on Bourbon Street.
10 Things to Know About Mardi Gras in New Orleans, LA
Once a year New Orleans descends into a flurry of chaos, crowds, and colorful masks as the city celebrates Mardi Gras– the last day of the Carnival celebration. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday as it's also known, is the Christian feasting period before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. But in the Big Easy the day of indulgence takes on a whole new meaning as galas, parades, and parties take over the city– it's even a Louisiana state holiday. This year the festivities will take place on March 5th, so whether you celebrate by catching beads on Bourbon or digging into a King Cake– here's everything you need to know about the unique history and culture of Mardi Gras.
1 Mardi Gras—the French term for 'Fat Tuesday'
The annual Carnival always kicks off 12 days after Christmas and continues until Fat Tuesday (the evening before Ash Wednesday.) It's a period filled with celebrations, parades, balls, and parties.
2 The first North American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Alabama—not Louisiana.
French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in what is now modern day Mobile, Alabama on Fat Tuesday, 1699. He named the location Point du Mardi Gras and threw a little party. In the years that followed, French travelers would come to the spot explicitly for Fat Tuesday celebrations. To this day, Mobile, Alabama claims to hold the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the country.
3 The traditional colors are purple, green, and gold.
It is rumored that when Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, his welcoming committee handed out purple, green, and gold beads to the party-goers that year, as they were the colors of his home. The trio of shades came to symbolize the festivities and were later given meanings: purple for justice, gold for power, and green for faith.
4 The King Cake, a traditional dessert, has biblical roots.
The story of these glazed and frosted pastries dates back to the Medieval Times, when French, Belgian, and Spanish cultures commemorated the 12th day of Christmas with gifts and sweets. Biblically, the kings during this time would have been visiting the newborn baby Jesus, bringing gifts and sweets of their own. That's where the "king" in king cake comes from. Today, the cakes are fried and doughy, glazed and frosted, typically in the Mardi Gras colors. They're usually circular and braided, to resemble a King's crown. Most cakes are baked with a tiny baby figurine on the inside, and whomever finds the toy, as tradition holds, must host the next big party.
5 Mardi Gras became the celebration we know today because of a secret society.
Since its first impromptu celebrations in the early 1700's, Mardi Gras had been regularly cancelled or banned for its destructive drunken parties—that is until 1837, when a secret society known as the Mistik Krewe of Comus aimed to elevate the chaotic experience, replacing the debauchery with lavish balls and parades. Eventually, the "Fat Tuesday" celebrations of New Orleans garnered much support and enthusiasm, later establishing itself as the Mardi Gras capital of the country.
6 There are more than 70 secret societies (or "Krewes") involved in today's Mardi Gras festivities.
Each Krewe builds a float to represent their specific theme on parade days and features a celebrity guest to regal their audience. One of the more unusual groups is the Krewe of Chewbacchus—a society that combines the lovable Star Wars Character with the Greek God of wine.
7 Russian royalty has attended the New Orleans festivities.
Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich, brother of the heir apparent to the Russian throne, traveled to Louisiana in 1872 to partake in the celebrations!
8 Each year, one ruler is anointed as "The King of Carnival."
The king is selected by the Krewe of Rex, founded in 1872 to honor Grand Duke Alexis Romanov Alexandrovich's arrival to New Orleans. The society has chosen a person of distinction every year since, and today, the mayor presents the King of Rex with a symbolic key to the city.
9 It is illegal to wear masks in New Orleans except on Mardi Gras.
The masquerade is an enduring tradition of the Mardi Gras festivities as an opportunity for people to shed their inhibitions and fully imbibe in the party-spirit. A New Orleans city ordinance prohibits the wearing of masks on any other day, and on Mardi Gras masks must be removed by 6:00 p.m.
10 Each Krewe hurls party favors into the crowds.
Floats notoriously give out "throws," which are exactly what they sound like: objects thrown into the crowd. They range from coconuts (given by the Krewe of Zulu) to stuffed animals or gold doubloons (by the Krewe of Rex). Beads are the most ubiquitous throws, which are given by almost everyone. A known code of asking for throws is to shout the phrase "throw me something mister". It's considered a great honor to receive a throw.
History of Mardi Gras
The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval Europe, passing through Rome and Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries to the French House of the Bourbons. From here, the traditional revelry of "Boeuf Gras," or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies.
On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America's very first Mardi Gras.
In 1704, Mobile established a secret society (Masque de la Mobile), similar to those that form our current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709. In 1710, the "Boeuf Gras Society" was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull's head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, Rex would parade with an actual bull, draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.
New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana's governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.
The earliest reference to Mardi Gras "Carnival" appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches, or "flambeaux," lit the way for the krewe's members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity. In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus, invoking John Milton's hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.
In 1870, Mardi Gras' second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras "throws."
Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance, and they even printed "Carnival Edition" lithographs of parades' fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course - themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small, and details could not be clearly seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus' parade "Visions of Other Worlds," these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color, doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers' work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache' artist Georges Soulie', who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival's floats and processional outfits.
1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex, to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff's family colors of purple, green and gold as Carnival's official colors. Purple stands for justice; gold for power; and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival's improbable anthem, "If Ever I Cease to Love," was cemented, due in part to the Duke's fondness for the tune.
The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France, culminating with Comus' magnificent "The Missing Links to Darwin's Origin of Species," in which exotic paper-mache' animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin's theory and local officials, including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the "Mardi Gras Act," making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana, which it still is.
Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies. Since all of these parade organizations are completely funded by their members, New Orleanians call it the "Greatest Free Show on Earth!"
On this Page:
History of Mardi Gras
10 Things to Know about Mardi Gras
History of Mardi Gras Beads