The Greatest Free Show on Earth

It’s official – I can now check “catch beads at Mardi Gras” off of my life to-do list. And before you get any ideas, a true Mardi Gras goer needs only to smile in order to get beads. Smile, be a pretty lady, or a child on an eight-foot ladder. The exposing of oneself is reserved solely for the tourists on Bourbon Street.

While I had some idea of what to expect, thanks to friends who have lived in New Orleans, I still wasn’t ready for the bead fever, over-the-top floats, delicious food and hoards of people. My friend Kathryn, who is lucky and talented enough to be part of the Krewe of Muses (a Krewe is the group of people and floats that make up each parade at Mardi Gras. Check out the full list here), tried to prepare me for what I was about to experience.

She explained what “throws” are: special items that are thrown out by each Krewe during their parade. These can be anything from fancy beads, to stuffed animals to glittered shoes. She also explained that medallions are a hot-ticket item to catch during the parades. Medallions are beads with a big charm that has the name of the Krewe on it. I didn’t believe her, but Kathryn was right – shortly after arriving in New Orleans, all I wanted was a medallion.

Throughout the first parade I must’ve had an extreme look of shock and no smiles, because I caught very few beads. I won’t lie, the first time you stand next to screaming adults with their hands outstretched begging for plastic necklaces, it’s a little surreal. However, after the shock wore off, bead fever started to set in. Give me beads! No, give me a medallion!

After parade numbers two and three, I still had no medallion. Those dang kids on the ladders – they got all the good stuff. Toward the end of parade four, the Krewe of Thoth, I decided I was done trying. My friend Heather and I headed to a higher vantage point to finish watching the parade. We found an empty spot on some stairs about 50 feet away from the street. Apparently the Krewe of Thoth likes a challenge because the beads started flying. We’d make eye contact, they’d give us a point and then launch the beads. After catching a few beads this way, we were feeling exhilarated. Another Krewe member caught my eye and launched a hot pink set of beads over the trees. And then I saw it, flying in slow motion right toward my hand – a medallion! With the celebrations that followed, you would’ve thought I caught gold.

Aside from all the bead slinging, drinking, and exposing of body parts, Mardi Gras has some great traditions and a long history. According to mardigrasneworleans.com, the first unofficial Mardi Gras dates back to 1703 and consisted mostly of high society balls. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the Krewe and parade traditions were added. To sum up some of the most interesting history, I’ll leave you with a few fun facts about this long-celebrated holiday.

– The first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans on February 24, 1857 by the Krewe of Comus.

– The first account of Mardi Gras “throws” was in 1871.

– Mardi Gras officially starts at Twelfth Night, which occurs 12 days after Christmas on January 6th.

– Rex, the King of Carnival, selected the Mardi Gras colors and assigned meaning to them in 1892. The colors stand for justice (purple), faith (green), and power (gold).

– The areas where people build and store Mardi Gras floats are called dens.

– By law, float riders must always have a mask on (not sure why, still looking into it)

– The King Cake represents the three kings of the Bible. A plastic baby is baked inside the cake, and whoever finds the baby must buy the King Cake next year.

And as they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” – Let the good times roll!

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