By Forest Riggs
Lordy! Lordy! Mardi Gras 2017 just ended on the Island and, as usual, it did not disappoint
Revelers lined the streets of Galveston, fused with strong drink, risking life and limb as they jump and dart among the huge, bead-tossing floats. Shouts of “ Throw me some beads!” could be heard from one end of the parade to the other. “ Give me some beads and I’ll show you my (fill in the blank).” Gotta love it!
But how did it all start? you might ask. And why beads? Like a good gumbo, there are tons of things that go into the Mardi Gras bead tradition. When you put all the ingredients together, you get a pretty good gumbo and idea of the origins of bead-tossing, catching and collecting.
The earliest Mardi Gras celebrations began in New Orleans during the early 1830s and quickly became the iconic festival of fun, mayhem and often, debauchery. (Things have not changed!) Most trace the roots of throwing trinkets to the crowds, appropriately called “ throws” , to the grand Rex Parade that rumbled down the streets of old New Orleans. In 1884 the Rex gang introduced medallions and yet another tradition was born and continues to this day. Modern collectors pay high prices for historic and unique Mardi Gras medallions.
Those along the route were tossed cheap trinkets, sort of like party favors, and these have certainly evolved over the years, from the shiny coins or medallions to cups (AKA New Orleans dinnerware) to stuffed animals, Frisbees, water bottles and just about anything of color that might thrill parade-goers when hurled at them from a moving float or vehicle. In one area of the
Strand, on Fat Tuesday, well-heeled residents and visitors toss legal tender—green money from balconies. I have seen it!
Beads, as we know them, entered the scene in the 1920s. The Rex Parade, ever the leader in early New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities, introduced bead-tossing along the parade route and, as they say, the rest is history. Over the years, the tradition has grown into a huge and integral part of any Mardi Gras celebration, no matter the size of the parade, community or gathering. There has even been some controversy as certain groups have included bead-throwing on a “ waste culture.” C’est la vie! I will admit that in Galveston, and I am sure New Orleans, long after the last float has crawled down the street and the last string of beads has been flung, there will be, for months, strands hanging from tree limbs, posts and dotting the gutters. They’re reminders of a good time that was had by all.
When you think of Mardi Gras and beads, you might wonder about the traditional colors of purple, green and gold. Each of these have a particular meaning that represents certain aspects of the yearly celebration. The color purple usually representing nobility and stands for justice. Green represents faith and gold represents power. Through the years, other colors, especially for beads, have been included, as well as in about every shape possible: crowns, crawfish, dice, fleur de lis and even green cannabis leaves to name a few. Nothing is sacred when it comes to Mardi Gras!
So what is the thrill of catching a string of beads and what do you do with them once you catch them? In Mardi Gras “ real time” , wearing a huge mass of beads around your neck is much like a gunfighter, notching his belt in the frontier days. “ Look at me—this is what I caught.” It really is amazing just how quickly a good “ bead catcher” can amass a huge pile of the bright colored treasure and wear it proudly along the route. You can check just about every closet, garage or junk box in Galveston and find beads. Everyone gets them and everyone has them around. Some make arts and craft items, some use them to decorate for the next Mardi Gras, some adorn Mardi Gras trees in their homes and yards. Others, with fences, line their pickets and rails with collected beads. Driving around the neighborhoods, especially during “ the season” you will see beads used in just about every concoction imaginable.
The beads, for the most part, are still made of cheap plastic. However, they are not cheap to the Krewes and float-riders that pay big bucks for bags and boxes of beads. Orders are placed as early as August and September; “ specially designed” beads, medallions and trinkets can be ordered as soon as few weeks after Mardi Gras. These are the “ personalized” items usually tossed by individual Krewes and organizations. It really is big bucks!
Recently on Facebook, island-son, mogul and entrepreneur Tilman Fertitta posted a great photo of himself, his brother Todd and a friend getting ready for a fun and another successful Mardi Gras. The Billion Dollar Buyer star commented that he was ready for Mardi Gras and allthe hoopla that comes with it.
Local islander and good friend, Eve Monteith, commented on Fertitta’s page, “ Tilman, this year, throw us some Billion Dollar beads instead of plastic!”
Gotta love Eve! He did toss some beads, just not gold and platinum. Next year, Eve!
In the end I think it is fair to use the old adage that everyone loves a parade and especially if beads are being tossed along the route. Mardi Gras beads are an old and fun tradition. If they bring a little joy to the world, that is great.
A resident of Galveston where he can be found wasting bait and searching for the meaning of life, Forest Riggs recently completed a collection of short stories about his beloved island and is working on a novel.