Whether it’s in Brazil or New Orleans carnival time usually means frolicking and partying in the streets. By studying the traditions of Mardi Gras, you’ll come to understand its roots.
Bead throwing actually began in the 1920s. The krewe were in charge of the parades. Moving across the streets, they would hurl cheap beads at the crowds. The practice caught on, and today it has become an integral part of carnival festivities. Most of the time beads thrown are made of glass, but nowadays some use plastic or other material.
Flashing of Breasts
Another common feature are women flashing their breasts. This actually has its roots in Roman practices. During the Lupercalla feast it was customary for the high priests to throw animal skin at women whom they came across. According to those who have studied the traditions of Mardi Gras, being touched by the animal skin would induce fertility.
Women clamored for the piece of skin. It was supposed to be thrown at random, but women often flashed their breasts to entice the priests to throw it at them.
As the years went by, the practice persisted minus the throwing of animal skin. Very few are probably aware of its origins. Those who do it probably do so because it’s fun, it is part of the tradition or both. As breast flashing became commonplace, it followed that women (and men) started wearing scanty outfits at the carnival. Its origin as a fertility ritual has been well established.
Other traditions of Mardi Gras are the wearing of masks in balls. The practice probably started following the fall of Rome. As Christianity spread, the loose morals prevalent in Rome were replaced by the strict codes of Christianity.
This didn’t stop the people from participating in carnivals though.
However, the participants started donning masks to conceal their identities. By hiding their identities, they could still participate in the various activities of carnival without fear of exposure.
Some have suggested that masks became popular because it allowed people to be someone else. Living in society that imposed rules on class and gender, the mask meant they could assume another identity for a while and do other things.
Eventually the masks became used more as an ornament than concealing identity. Some researchers suggest that the masks led to the development of more elaborate costumes.
Drinking and Merrymaking
Of all the traditions of Mardi Gras, the most prevalent is drinking and dancing. Whatever the difference between the floats and parades, the frenzied atmosphere is the one constant. Its origin is thought to be the Roman feast of Lupercalla and / or Saturnalia.
The Saturnalia featured a deformed man who was made king for a day. The man was usually a slave. He was allowed for the day to get drunk, indulge in food and debauchery. At the end of the day he was executed. This probably explains why some floats to this day still incorporate images of an ugly man in their designs.
The traditions of Mardi Gras are numerous. Each of them has a unique background and can be as fascinating as the carnival itself. Studying them gives you more insight into history as well.