“Krewes” run New Orleans’ parades
Although Mardi Gras parties and balls were thrown in New Orleans during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the modern parades as we know them began in 1857, when the first was put on by a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus (whose original members were actually from Mobile). More krewes were established as years went on, including Krewes of Rex, Proteus, and Zulu, which paraded their own floats. The krewes today continue to organize and fund the Mardi Gras parades through dues, fundraising, and merchandise. Each krewe comes up with an elaborate theme for their floats each year and puts a huge amount of effort into the preparation. But no tickets are needed for the parades, which is why Mardi Gras is called “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.”
There are more parades leading up to Mardi Gras
Although Mardi Gras itself is one day, Mardi Gras season, known as Carnival, begins weeks before on Twelfth Night, literally the twelfth night after Christmas (as in the “12 Days of Christmas” referred to in the song). The end of the 12 nights, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian tradition. It’s also known as Three Kings Day, recognizing when the Three Wise Men came bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Carnival may get its name from the Latin carnelevarium, meaning to remove meat, as is done during Lent. In New Orleans, the entire season of Carnival is full of parades, not just on Mardi Gras itself—in fact, if you visit earlier in the season, you can likely score better deals on hotels while still enjoying the festivities.
Why beads are thrown
If you attend a Mardi Gras parade, chances are you will be overwhelmed with beads thrown from the floats, as well as toys, stuffed animals, cups, doubloons, and other goodies. (Pro tip: Bring a bag to hold them all.) All you need to do to get one is yell, “Throw me something, mister!” (No “flashing” is required.) But how did the tradition of “throws” begin? In the early years of the parades, these trinkets may have been tossed as an incentive to get people to watch the parades (as if they needed another reason to celebrate!). While some throws may end up in the garbage on Ash Wednesday, signature collectibles from the krewes are beautifully decorated and worth holding onto, including Zulu coconuts, Muses shoes, Nyx purses, Alla genie lamps, and Carrollton shrimp boots.