Why Beads at Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras, or the Fat Tuesday, is an annual festival, hosted in New Orleans, LA. Perhaps the most popular element of the celebrations are the inexpensive strings of beads and glass necklaces, thrown to the crowd during the parade. Today, each year, thousands of people cover themselves in as many Mardi Gras beads as their necks can hold. But where and when did this tradition start?

Various sources claim that the tradition to throw inexpensive glass trinkets to the parading crowd dates as early as the 19th century. However, there is some evidence that Mardi Gras were a popular part of the New Orleans’ celebration as early as the 1830s. The parades would typically run during the Carnival season (between January 6 and the Fat Tuesday). Around 1872, a group of businessmen invented the character Rex - the King of the Carnival, who would toss sugarcoated almonds to the crowd, very similar to the Mardi Gras beads we know today. According to some other sources, the first mention of the Mardi Gras beads was also associated with Rex but much later - during the 1920s - when the King used to throw hand-made glass necklaces in the crowd.

The throwing of inexpensive glass-beads necklaces might have started as early as the 1800s. According to a story, the first man who used beads as part of their decoration, was a man dressed up as Santa Claus - and the New Orleans crowd loved him! Tourists soon followed and started including necklaces made of glass beads in their festival costumes as well.

In 1970, a group known as “Zulu” tried to change the tradition by handing coconuts to the crowd during the Mardi Gras parades. However, you can imagine that this practice turned out to be quite an unsuccessful one, since the coconuts caused a large number of injuries and traumas. In fact, the Louisiаna governor at the time, even signed a “coconut bill” in the law, allowing coconuts to be passed to the crowds with the beads. The glass-bead necklaces, however, remained the most popular choice.

At certain point, the glass beads were replaced by the cheaper and more durable plastic beads, supplied initially from Hong Kong and later by Taiwan and China. The relatively low price allows the float-riders to buy greater quantities and throw numerous trinkets to the carnival crowd.

Since then, the Mardi Gras industry has grown enormously. A few people actually know that there is a color scheme, associated with the necklaces. The purple symbolizes justice, the green holds the meaning of faith, and the gold is a symbol of power. These initial first three colors are now replaced with Mardi Gras beads in every shape and color imaginable, as the popularity of the parades grows.

In fact, it’s interesting to note that even the material of the Mardi Gras beads changed over time. The first beads, as already mentioned, were made of glass, but later replaced by plastic, as it was a cheaper and more durable material. Today, more sophisticated throws include metallic beads and even some limited edition ones. Krewes, for instance, produce special beads and toys that are unique to the krewe. Fiber optic beads and LED-powered ones are even more popular and sought after by tourists. There is some indication that the float-riders might even return to the glass-beads (some have already done it) in a retro-inspired twist.

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