Some are keepers, some are tossers, but beads are an essential part of the Mardi Gras thread
More than 1 million beads will rain down on Mardi Gras revelers in the two weekends of celebration in February. Kings, queens and krewes have tossed celebratory strings from floats since the earliest of Mardi Gras celebrations. The beads are big, small, short or tall. Indeed, Mardi Gras beads are as varied as the folks who toss them.
The trio of purple, green and gold hues — representing justice, faith and power — was adopted as official Mardi Gras colors in the late 1800s. Today’s beads, at their most basic, remain purple, green and gold. But basic isn’t what Galveston krewes are tossing or talking about.
For the uninitiated, a Mardi Gras krewe is a social organization that creates floats or hosts parades during the annual celebration that takes place before the start of Lent, the annual period of Christian observance that precedes Easter.
Each krewe creates a special bead, or kissing bead, with a specific theme. The theme differs from krewe to krewe and from year to year. In addition, individual kings and queens might create another bead and personalize it further by signing and dating it. Some krewes have multiple floats and, taking it a step further, might create a theme within a theme for individual floats. For example, one float might choose to throw blinking beads or trinkets. All of this generates a multitude of bead varieties for any given year. The more personalized the bead, the more collectible it becomes.
Johnny Lidstone, charter member of the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius, has beads dating back 35 years. Lidstone was an original organizer of the krewe with his father, Merle, 93.
“I’ve got boxes of all kinds of beads,” Lidstone said. “One of the most unique kissing beads I have are my purple, green and gold toilets. People have offered me real money for those toilets. I’ve never seen any bead like them and I’m not likely to give them up.”
He estimates Aquarius will go through more than a million bead throws. The Krewe of Gambrinus will do the same, krewe member Galen Lidgett said.
“Kissing beads are for collecting, not for throwing,” Krewe of Gambrinus member Linda Kuper said.
Kuper, too, has an extensive collection of beads and doubloons. The tradition of throwing trinkets from floats started long ago, she said.
“The original winter festivals during the Renaissance had people tossing seeds in the air to celebrate the new season of planting,” Kuper said. “The New Orleans Krewe Rex threw beads and trinkets off their floats and everyone was excited. Thus, the tradition began.”
The Knights of Momus have their beads delivered by the truckload on the morning of the parade, board member Johnny Listowski said. “Two 18-wheelers haul in our beads that morning,” he said. “Each truck holds 24 pallets and each pallet is 6 feet tall. We buy a whole lotta beads.”
Some beads come from as far away as China and a few krewes buy theirs from local bead maker Gary Douglas, a wholesaler in Seabrook. The most common size for a throwing bead is about 10 mm, Listowski said.
“They’ve got to have a little weight to them to make a proper toss but not too much — we don’t want to hurt folks with them,” Listowski said.
When talking to krewes about beads, a recurring theme was “going greener.” Most krewe members have cut the amount of orders and recycle beads from year to year or from parade to parade, they said. Some buy environmentally friendlier, but more expensive, glass beads. And others make their specialty beads from recycled materials.
Martin Petri of the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius, makes his kissing beads from recycled corks, he said.
“People appreciate the uniqueness of the throws,” as well as the recycled properties, Petri said.
“A quarter of our beads are made out of glass,” Knights of Momus Parade Marshal Rob Kirschner said. “They’re shatterproof and hand-sewn. They’re eco-friendlier but drastically more expensive. We throw much less than we have in previous years — a little better than 50,000 beads and 40,000 toys and trinkets — but we are consciously trying to go greener. We recycle what hasn’t been thrown for later parades. Finding a way that is environmentally sound but affordable is difficult. I know some companies are trying to make beads from 100 percent recyclable materials, but I don’t see that being an option for some time.”
To recycle Mardi Gras beads, the Galveston Island Humane Society will gladly accept them, Executive Director Caroline Dorsett-Pate said. The humane society uses the beads in its parade.
“It’s a great way to recycle and it keeps our parade costs down,” she said.
Take beads to the humane society building, 6814 Broadway, or to the Krewe of Barkus & Meoux before parade commencement. Also, Galveston’s recycling center, 702 61st St., will accept all plastic beads.