What Do Mardi Gras Beads Represent?

Written by nicole leboeuf-little
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What Do Mardi Gras Beads Represent?
(Photo by Grafixar (MorgueFile.com))

They're cheap. They're tacky. They're made of plastic. But they're prized like pearls every Fat Tuesday on the streets of New Orleans. Just like everything else associated with Mardi Gras, beads have a complex history and a significance all their own.

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According to legend, the first beads were thrown in the 1880s by a man in Santa Claus garb. Arthur Hardy, publisher of Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide, attributes the honour to Rex, King of Carnival. Yet another legend cites a krewe queen spontaneously tossing her pearl necklace into the crowd.

Early Origins

The first Mardi Gras parade throws were sugar-coated almonds, or "dragees," thrown during the 1840s. Other throws of the era were less pleasant---dirt, flour and quicklime. The pre-Lenten tradition of pelting carnival-goers with missiles both nasty and nice may derive from a similar practice in Renaissance Europe.


Contrary to popular belief, there is no direct link between today's Mardi Gras practices and the early pagan festivals of Bacchanalia, Saturnalia and Lupercalia. Instead our pre-Lenten carnivals derive from those of medieval Europe.


Purple, green and gold, the official Mardi Gras colours that predominate among bead colours, were chosen by Rex in 1872. Officially, they symbolise justice, faith and power. An association with frankincense, myrrh and gold from the legend of the three Magi has also arisen. According to modern folklore, gold beads bring luck and white beads mean kisses.

Fun Fact

An early form of Mardi Gras parading still in practice in southern Louisiana is the Courir de Mardi Gras, or "Mardi Gras Run." This roaming costumed party goes house to house not tossing trinkets but instead begging for gumbo ingredients to supply the evening's fais dodo.

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