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The Story of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Beads

Mardi Gras beads are the colors of the Russian Royal House.

Worry Beads and Mardi Gras beadsSo, after focusing on space for most of the year, I’m back to New Orleans! The hubs and I lived in New Orleans for 18 years, so it has been a lovely experience for me to return to New Orleans with my Big Uneasy series of romantic mysteries.

New Orleans has always been a city of joie de vivre —exuberant enjoyment of life. It all

man with painted face

He loves Mardi Gras!

started as far back as March 3, 1699, when the French explorers Bienville and Iberville noticed it was Fat Tuesday, pulled their longboat over on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about 60 miles from the site that is now New Orleans, and celebrated Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) around the campfire. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated much more lavishly in New Orleans, but parades, beads, and kings were yet to come. 

The Mardi Gras staples of beads, kings, queens, and processions hearken back to the days when courts and balls were part of everyday life in the city. You see, by 1743 Marquis de Vaudreuil became governor, he and his wife imitated the style of Louis XV. Vaudreuil held court as if he was a king instead of a governor. He insisted on refined manners and speech and even bestowed titles on his fellow citizens as if they were his subjects. The whole city was like a miniature French court. The wealthy families indulged in splendor, pageantry, grand balls… and sent their sons to school in Paris.

mardi gras parade scene

Colorfully attired member of the Krewe of Rex picks out people in the crowd to recipients of their throws, in this case, beads.

The Spanish took over in 1764. The cultures blended in the city and a French/Spanish lifestyle flourished. A 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body mentions Mardi Gras “Carnival”. Also, that same year the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was founded, the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations in New Orleans. New Orleans was returned to the French in 1800, but Spain continued administering the colony until 1803, just three weeks before France sold it to America.

In 1827, some students, who’d just come back to New Orleans from studying in Paris, dressed in costumes and masks then danced in the street as they tossed flowers to the crowd just as they’d seen people do in France at le Carnaval. The first official New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade, a dazzling procession, lit by gaslight torches (flambeaux ), of people in masks riding in carriages and on horseback took place in 1837. The first krewe in New Orleans, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, held their first parade in 1857. They also named a royal court, including King and Queen, to ride in the parade. After 1866, Mardi Gras organizations started crowning their royalty at lavish balls. The very first queen of Comus’, who presided over the 1884 festivities, was Mildred Lee, Robert E. Lee’s daughter. 

In 1872, Krewe Rex’s King of the Carnival tossed sugar-coated almonds to the crowd. And, in 1884, the Rex Krewe began throwing medallions. Also at some point, the Rex Krewe began tossing hand-made strands of Czech glass beads to represent regal jewelry worn by

reaching for beads

Reaching for beads

Kings and Queens. Some strands might have had pearls or real jewels strung with them. These medallions and fake jewels emulated the honors and riches a King would bestow on his nobles. 

Mardi Gras beads are the colors of the Russian Royal House. They were chosen by the Rex Krewe to honor Grand Duke Alexis when he came to New Orleans in 1872. Later the Krewe gave each color a meaning so they could toss the beads to those in the crowd who exhibited those traits. 

  • Purple is justice
  • Green is faith
  • Gold is power. 

If you caught them you had good luck. Over a hundred years later, catching beads is still a big part of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. As they say in the Crescent City, laissez les bon temps rouler— let the good times roll. 

Have you ever been to Mardi Gras?

Perilously yours,

Pauline

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