Mardi Gras Beads
Of all the "throws" at Mardi Gras, beads are the most well-known and the most ubiquitous. Far from the mere icons of Bourbon Street revelry, Mardi Gras beads are part of a larger and more meaningful tradition than just that of college students baiting each other to bare skin.
Photo by Rafael Rezende on Flickr
So what's the deal? Though they were relatively late to the party, beads have become the standard-bearers of Mardi Gras trinkets. The first Mardi Gras beads, thrown by New Orleans' Krewe of Rex in the 1920s, were made of glass; those are rare now, replaced mostly by cheaper plastic necklaces made in Southeast Asia, so if you manage to snag a strand of glass beads, be sure to hold onto them. Tossed into the crowd by krewe members – the people who belong to the societies that run Mardi Gras parades and balls – it's easy to end up with with pounds of purple, green, and gold baubles around your neck. (Those colors are the official colors of Carnival, standing for "justice," "faith," and "power" in Mardi Gras tradition.) Sure, there are lots of other throws – plastic cups, frisbees, coconuts and doubloons – but beads are the foundation on which all other Mardi Gras trinkets rest.
"It's really pretty remarkable. After a couple of beers, all you want in life is those beads," said Julia Ramsey, a New Orleans native, and vocal proponent of Mardi Gras. Though this year, she says, "I'm getting up early and getting a coconut." (Coconuts are the most coveted of Mardi Gras throws, only given out by the Krewe of Zulu's 8 a.m. Mardi Gras parade). And she's right. In view of all of celebration and energy, a certain Mardi Gras beads-mania overtakes you. Helpfully, many of the parades also through sturdy plastic tote bags with covered in Krewe emblems so you can take home the large quantities of colorful plastic you'll have no idea what to do with four months later (it will seem perfectly reasonable at the time).
But for goodness' sake, the locals will tell you, don't think a strand of beads is an invitation to expose yourself. The practice is only in New Orleans, and there, only on Bourbon Street (it's also illegal); from Mobile, Alabama to Trinidad and Tobago the practice is frowned upon almost universally everywhere else.
While the history of Mardi Gras and Carnival is full of mysteries, the truth of the beads is simple: They're colorful flair that lets everyone know, in the simplest of ways, that you too are full of the Mardi Gras spirit.