Mardi Gras Beads and Other Fat Tuesday Customs
Each year, Mardi Gras is a celebration that is guaranteed to outdo the last.
Let's look at some traditions and customs of this fascinating season — from Mardi Gras beads to the King Baby — while NOLA residents let the good times roll.
Fat Tuesday vs. Shrove Tuesday
Both terms mark the same day. "Mardi Gras" is French for "Fat Tuesday," which marks the end of the pre-Lenten season.
"Shrove Tuesday" is an English term that came into being in the Middle Ages. "Shrove" comes from "shrive," which means to confess your sins.
The Changing Dates
Because Mardi Gras is connected to Easter, its date will always change, as it marks the end of the pre-Lenten season. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, the day after Fat Tuesday.
Easter lands on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the spring equinox and occurs between March 22 to April 25 each year.
Paganism and Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras was made an official celebration in 1875, but its roots are pagan and go back to festivals in ancient Rome, specifically Lupercalia and Saturnalia, some elements of which were later incorporated into Christianity.
Lupercalia was a festival that took place each February over a three-day period; its main themes were health, fertility, rebirth and the cleansing of evil spirits.
Saturnalia, held in December, had a more carnival-like feel that revolved around indulgence in food and drink and electing a "king" who would hold court over the party.
Twelfth Night and the Phunny Phorty Phellows
Carnival season really begins on Twelfth Night on Jan. 6, about two weeks after Christmas. To open the season, the Phunny Phorty Phellows, a krewe that dates back to the late 19th century, participates in the “Carnival Countdown.”
The krewe's costumed members take their traditional ride on a streetcar up and down the entire St. Charles line.
Parades and Floats
Mardi Gras parades became an annual event around 1837. Within 20 years, however, they were violent and somewhat destructive to New Orleans, and the city considered banning them altogether.
However, the Mystic Krewe of Comus stepped up to the plate and promised to run an organized and safer parade in 1857. It was a success, and they continued that tradition until 1992.
So, What Is a "Krewe"?
Krewes are social organizations that put on parades or balls during the Carnival season. While the term is best known for Mardi Gras parades in and around New Orleans, krewes operate in other areas where the season is celebrated.
Some krewes have been part of the celebration since the 19th century. For example, The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the first official krewe, was formed in 1856.
Mardi Gras Traditional Colors
If you go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you'll see a wide spectrum of colors, but the colors people associate with the celebration are purple, gold and green.
While there is no definitive reason how those three hues became the colors of Mardi Gras, they were chosen around 1872, and some believe they were meant to honor the Russian Duke, Alexei Alexandrovich Romanoff.
The colors are said to symbolize wealth and royalty. In 1982, the Mardi Gras King gave each color a definitive meaning — purple represents justice, green represents faith, and gold is for power.
The Meaning of the King Cake
The tradition of the King Cake, which is synonymous with everything Mardi Gras, came to the U.S. via the French in the 1870s.
This sweet pastry is covered in the colors of the season — purple, green and gold — and symbolizes the Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men to Christ at his birth.
The King Cake's Secret Surprise
If you cut yourself a slice of King Cake, you may get a surprise you didn't expect — a plastic infant.
The baby is a symbol of the newborn Jesus (aka, Christ the King). Whoever gets the slice with the baby in it must bring a cake to the next event.
Pancakes Are Also Part of the Celebration
Other sweet treats are front and center during the celebration, and pancakes are one of them. This particular custom goes back to about 600 A.D. when Pope Gregory I forbid Christians from eating meat or dairy during Lent.
To get rid of what they had before Lent started but to not waste it, the people used their eggs, milk and butter — all pancake ingredients — just before they began fasting.
The Origin of "Throws"
Remember the ancient Roman pagan tradition of Lupercalia? That's where the throwing of trinkets is believed to have started.
Instead of throwing beads, the Romans gave out whips made of goat hide and playfully whipped the crowd at the festival's conclusion.
The Recent Popularity of Doubloons
This is, surprisingly, one of the more recent Mardi Gras traditions. The coins that krewes throw from their floats date back to about 1960.
Doubloons are made from aluminum and typically have the emblem and name of the Mardi Gras krewe throwing them on the front and their theme for that year on the back.
Why Beads Are Thrown at Mardi Gras
Beads are a mainstay for Mardi Gras revelers, but why they were chosen as throws has been lost to history.
There is a legend dating back to the 1880s that states someone dressed as Santa Claus began tossing them into the crowds. Back then, they were made of glass and quite ornate — as it was free jewelry, people would fight over them.
While they are plastic today, they are still a big part of Mardi Gras celebrations, and yes, people still fight over them.
If you get a Zulu coconut at Mardi Gras, consider yourself lucky. As throws, they are highly coveted. The coconut gift dates back to the early 20th century when the Zulu krewe could not afford beads.
Too many injuries and subsequent lawsuits have kept the krewe from actually throwing them into crowds. Today, they are hollowed out and given to people, not thrown.
The Keepers of the Light
The Flambeaux made their debut at Mardi Gras with the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857. They originally carried simple torches to allow the revelers to see the parade at night.
They do not need to light the parade route today, nor do they carry rudimentary torches; instead, they dance and otherwise entertain parade crowds for tips.
Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras Indians have been a part of the yearly celebration since the mid-19th century, if not before. Traditionally, krewes excluded African Americans from their celebrations, so the community created its own.
The group is largely made up of members who dress up in elaborate Native American costumes. Today, there are nearly 40 "tribes" ranging from six people to several dozen.
You can't Google their route — but the locals know in. They wander New Orleans' backstreets every Mardi Gras, with revelers in tow.
The Meaning Behind the Masks
Before the festival came to America, masks allowed the wearer to escape their class status. Rich and poor or royal and commoner could mingle freely among each other in disguise.
Today, most people wear masks during the celebration. In fact, if you're on a float, you have to wear one — it's the law.
Rex has been a Mardi Gras krewe since 1872. The Rex parade was the first daytime parade of the modern celebration.
And the Mardi Gras king, Rex, is chosen by the School of Design (founded in 1872), which sponsors the Rex parade. Most krewes have a king, queen or both of their own and hold random drawings to choose them.
The Key to the City
Since a Rex member serves as "The King of Carnival," the mayor of New Orleans gives him the key to the city each year.
Flashing for beads is one of those traditions that appeared more recently, but it may actually date back to the 19th century.
The beads given today are cheap, plastic and plentiful, but older beads were more ornate and desirable. In 1889, "The Times Democrat" newspaper reported there was a "degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets."
Sure, they may have shown a hint of ankle back then, but the tradition of showing skin was already in place.
In 1968, the Krewe of Bacchus decided to break with tradition and have its own Sunday night bash.
Its parade boasts some of the most spectacular floats of the season, and the krewe has a celebrity king lead the party.
In past years, Will Ferrell, Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, William Shatner, Kirk Douglas and JK Simmons have served as royalty.
Climbing Colorful Ladders
The ladders that line the parade route at Mardi Gras are made safer than something you would climb to check your gutters.
While they are a long-standing tradition, they're in place to allow children to see the parade better.
A New Tradition: House Floats
The pandemic changed everything — including Mardi Gras. Out of safety, the parades were canceled, but that didn't mean people weren't going to celebrate.
They turned their homes into elaborate house floats. Even though the parades are back in 2022, this is one tradition that will continue.
The North Side Skull and Bone Gang
The North Side Skull and Bone Gang has been marching through the Treme neighborhood for 200 years.
The krewe, which has roots in African spirituality and customs, goes door to door to wake up neighborhood residents bright and early every Fat Tuesday.
Courir de Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is also celebrated in rural Louisiana, particularly in Cajun Country. While some traditions overlap (like costuming), others are for country folk only.
There's a traditional "run" led by the captain of Carnival. Participants travel on horseback, foot or in other ways through their neighborhood to beg for gumbo ingredients for a communal dish to be served in the evening.
The last ingredient is a chicken, chased by revelers.