Whether you live in New Orleans or not, Mardi Gras is one holiday worth knowing about. Typically taking place on dates in February or March, Mardi Gras is a historic carnival with its roots in the Christian tradition. If you plan on going, the only thing more important than the beads you'll be collecting are the awesome Mardi Gras Outfits you can put together with our Mardi Gras Apparel Collection. There’s plenty to know about Mardi Gras, but we’ll be focusing on one specific aspect of the celebration for this post… the iconic Mardi Gras beads.
In this blog, we’ll explore the rich history of Mardi Gras beads and reveal how their meaning has evolved and changed over time. Before we get there, though, let’s take a quick look at the origins of the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration.
Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated in parts of the world where Catholicism is practiced. The traditional Catholic festival is sometimes referred to as “Fat Tuesday,” and it’s essentially one last hurrah before hunkering down to observe Lent.
Lent, for those who didn’t grow up going to mass, is the 40-day period when Catholics abstain from certain pleasures as a sign of their devotion to the Good Lord.
At some point, Catholics decided that Lent was pretty damn hard. With this in mind, they became determined to incorporate a hedonistic pre-game for Lent into the religious calendar, and Mardi Gras was born. Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” and the name of the holiday refers to the way that many Catholics would pig out on unhealthy (tasty) food before abstaining from it for Lent.
Modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations like the one in New Orleans still draw inspiration from the holiday’s Catholic roots. The goal of Mardi Gras is to have a grand old time before Lent begins, and that means anything goes. Traditions like public nudity, drinking tons of alcohol, and tossing flaming torches are all long-standing rituals at your typical New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.
The traditional colors of the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration are purple, gold, and green. These colors were chosen back in 1872 by the Rex organization, one of the most historic social clubs associated with the planning of Mardi Gras festivities.
No one knows for sure why these were the colors that the Rex organization chose to represent the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. Some historians speculate the social club chose that trio because those are the colors associated with royalty. Most believe that the social club just really liked those colors a whole bunch.
While that might sound like too simple of an explanation, there are more historical instances like this than you might think. After all, Betsy Ross probably looked at her newly-sewn American Flag at some point and said, “Damn, that looks nice. That’s the one.” That’s just the way it sometimes goes with us humans. We like the aesthetic.
Mardi Gras celebrations take place in numerous parts of the world each year, but the carnival in New Orleans is one of the most famous observances of the holiday. Every year, social groups called “krewes” organize the festivities, which take place for about two weeks before the start of the Catholic observance of Lent.
These “krewes” include groups like the Knights of Momus and the Krewe of Proteus, who for ages have contributed to the planning and organizing of Mardi Gras events. Some of these groups formed more recently as well. The two primary social clubs in charge of the Mardi Gras festivities are the Zulu and Rex societies.
Both Zulu and Rex hold their own parades during Mardi Gras, as well as many other Mardi-Gras-related celebrations throughout the preceding weeks. One tradition that comes before the Zulu and Rex parades is a Mardi Gras ball: a traditional dance that functions a little bit like a high school prom.
Mardi Gras beads are part of a longstanding tradition in the New Orleans celebration of the holiday. Often referred to as “throws,” the beads are tossed off of parade floats to the thousands of onlookers, who then add them to their Mardi Gras-themed costumes.
The traditional Mardi Gras beads were made from glass and imported from Czechoslovakia. These original beads featured the classic color combination of green, gold, and purple, and they definitely had beauty and value. However, they were also expensive to produce and extremely fragile. That’s why the material and production location for the beads changed midway through the 20th century.
The original glass Mardi Gras beads were eventually replaced by plastic necklaces from China. These cheaper beads are now mainstays during parades in New Orleans, and more of them can be tossed off of parade floats than ever before.
Why so many beads, you might ask? It’s because they’re now cheaper, more durable, and easier to buy in bulk. After all, the Czechoslovakian beads were pretty valuable, and a lot of them were likely to break during a typical Mardi Gras parade.
Now, with plastic beads instead of glass ones, it’s easier than ever for one of the many Mardi Gras social clubs to purchase thousands of beads and toss them off of a float during the parade.
As the new millennium approached, the cultural attitude towards the Mardi Gras beads began changing. While they were once seen as valuable keepsakes, the beads eventually earned a reputation as cheap throwaways in the court of public opinion. Thousands of strands of cast-off beads became a normal sight in the aftermath of a Mardi Gras celebration.
Instead of clamoring to catch a handful of beads, modern parade-goers at Mardi Gras began wanting something more. To respond to public demand, typical Mardi Gras “throws” became a bit more diverse and exciting. Parade participants started throwing collectible figurines into the crowds, as well as other sought-after pieces of Mardi Gras memorabilia.
Even though they don’t hold the same value that they used to, Mardi Gras beads are still an important part of a traditional Fat Tuesday celebration; they just look different now.
Modern Mardi Gras beads often feature flashing LED lights, fiber-optic elements, and a wider range of vibrant colors. The traditional Mardi Gras color palette of green, gold, and purple is still often seen on strands of beads, but usually alongside other eye-catching hues.
Alongside the strands of modern, flashy beads, parade-goers at a 21st century Mardi Gras celebration might catch a wide array of other collectible items as the festivities go on. Everything from plush toys to necklaces to mock gold coins are now the normal throws during the parade, keeping the crowds entertained.
In addition to the updated roster of Mardi Gras collectibles, there’s been a resurgence in the appearances of the classic glass beads as well. So, it seems like things have really come full-circle for Mardi Gras.
If you’re planning on celebrating Mardi Gras down in New Orleans, you’ll want to be well-informed about what goes on after the festivities commence.
Here’s a quick primer for your average Mardi Gras celebration:
If you’re planning on joining in on the Mardi Gras festivities this year, prepare for a good time. Things might get a little wild, but you won’t regret witnessing this insane celebration at least once in your life.
Just remember to look sharp! We’ve got plenty of Mardi Gras-inspired apparel to pack in your suitcase, so make sure to visit our shop before you hit the road. Oh, and don’t forget to bring us back some beads!