A solemn religious period is proceeded by a multi-month party, rising to a crescendo of parades, eating and binge drinking where women bare their breasts in exchange for cheap, plastic beads. This is how I would explain Mardi Gras to an alien. But what is the significance of these coveted necklaces, and how did flashing become part of a Catholic holiday?
The Carnival season kicks off after Christmas on the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, aka the Twelfth Day of Christmas. This party period ramps up throughout January and February and, in New Orleans, really starts cooking the week before Ash Wednesday, when the partying comes to a screeching halt and fasting begins. The last hurrah before that is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday (also sometimes called Shrove Tuesday).
As part of the festivities, ethnically French cities along the gulf coast of the U.S., like in Texas through Florida, hold large parades, many of which have been annual events since the 1700s. In New Orleans, whose French Quarter is particularly famous for their celebrations, night parades around the city (including infamous Bourbon Street) lead to masked invitation-only balls held by rival "krewes" in the city.
As part of these lavish parades, riders on floats toss “throws” into the crowd, which are usually necklaces of cheap plastic beads and plastic doubloons (though some krewes have been known to chuck coconuts or even decorated shoes into the crowd). Depending on the krewe, the beads can be differently ordained, with little plastic baby figures, medallions, and charms but they are most likely in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, which symbolize justice, power and faith.
When revelers would like something tossed their way, they shout, “Throw me something, mister.” If they are lucky, they’ll get a prize launched at them. Most of the time, this exchange involves no nudity, but in tourist-heavy areas like Bourbon Street, some krewes take advantage of women, asking them to lift up their shirt if they want beads. Though flashing is common in those areas, it is frowned up by locals in the rest of the city, as they believe it adds a seediness to their traditions.
As for why beads, it dates back to traditions from medieval England. In the 1800s, sugar-coated almonds were thrown. Then glass beads were introduced, which were instantly popular. They were probably easier to hold, too, just throwing them over your neck instead of stuffing handfuls of nuts in your pockets. By 1900, a tradition was born.
Of course, krewes sought out cheaper alternatives, turning to mass-produced plastic beads from China. Recently, as parade competition heats up, the trend has gone back to glass and the elaborate LED throws. Other swag like stuffed animals and frisbees have also become sought-after items.
Whatever they are throwing, it’s best to keep it classy. The fine people of New Orleans appreciate you keeping your shirt on when you’re visiting. Rely on some good ol' Southern charm instead to make your throw dreams come true! If all else fails, there's probably another parade with better throws right around the corner.