While Mardi Gras means many things to many people, one item that is incorporated into almost every Mardi Gras celebration is beads of every size, shape, and color.
But how did this tradition come to be? And more importantly what do those beads stand for? The bead phenomena is a relatively new one considering that while the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans occurred in the 1830s, it wasn’t until the Rex parade threw inexpensive handmade glass necklaces sometime in the 1920s that the tradition was born.
Since that time the Mardi Gras bead industry has grown larger with each year and the cries of “throw me something, Mister!” that parade goers yell to catch the attention of the floats passing by gets louder along with more creative ideas to secure those precious trinkets.
However, many people don’t know that the traditional Mardi Gras bead color scheme: purple, green, and gold holds special meaning as well. The Purple, represents justice; the Green symbolizes faith; and the Gold exemplifies power. Though as the celebrations grow larger with each year that passes, beads and necklaces now come in every shape and color imaginable.
Also, parade Krewes each year have sought out other trinkets to toss to the crowds, in addition to the beads, to make their parade unique. In recent years Frisbees, plastic cups, and even doubloons all marked with the specific parade Krewes name and logo have been thrown to thousands of Mardi Gras goers. Though one of the more unique and sought-after throws, among Mardi Gras aficionados, is distributed by the Zulu Aid & Pleasure club, which distributes hand-painted coconuts. In recent years the Zulus have needed to pass out the coconuts in bags, rather then throwing them due to safety concerns as they weigh about 11 lbs. each!
But the beads and necklaces remain the most popular Mardi Gras souvenir. And it is not uncommon for members of parade Krewes to spend an average of $800-$2,000 per parade ride on the beads that they will toss over the course of their parade route. Also, Krewes must submit their bead orders in September to ensure that they will be ready for Carnival season early the next year.
In recent years the distribution of beads has been equated to rowdy behavior. This has mainly involved men demanding that women show certain parts of their bodies to earn their beads. Many long-time Mardi Gras attendees will point out that this mainly happens in the French Quarter and not along the actual parade route, where the fun and true purpose of Mardi Gras continues to prosper.
Beads are getting longer and bigger. The most popular size today is about 33″long.