New Orleans is world-renowned for the particular brand of celebratory effort they put forth in their passionate claim-to-fame focused on the component of Carnival known as Mardi Gras. And the most prominent element of Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday,”) is the parades that fill the streets, in an endless processional of high-energy dancing. And every parade walker and float rider is clothed in bigger-than-life costumes–some weighing over 200 lbs., and flamboyantly garnished with vibrant colors, feathers and sequins. All are required to wear masks and float riders must have something to distribute to the crowds on either side as they pass.
From Glass to Plastic
The most commonly known Mardi Gras trinkets are the plastic beads tossed from float riders and people everywhere. At one time, these beads were made of glass, and because of potential breakage, they were passed out, and not thrown, for obvious reasons. It was only when they began being mass produced in the more resilient plastic that they could be more freely tossed and thrown out to bystanders along the parade route. Coconuts came into Mardi Gras being during a time when paraders could not afford to buy beads, so unadorned, hairy coconuts were substituted.
From Beads to Stuffed Animals
There is no particular mandate that beads must be the only item distributed, and parade goers will receive different items from different krewes. There are specific areas that are designated as family-specific venues, where instead of heavy drinking and debauchery, attendees engage in more wholesome picnics and barbecues with lighter music and G-rated elements. There, it’s common for float riders to distribute stuffed animals to the bystanding children, rather than plastic beads.
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
The Zulu Strict Rule that Coconuts are Never to be Thrown, Only Given out, Hand to Hand
Today, the coconuts of Mardi Gras must be hollowed out, but at one time, they weren’t, making them much heavier, and people were injured. By hollowing them out, their weight of around 1 ½ lbs. was reduced to around 4 ounces, making them less of a danger. The Mardi Gras law was instituted to cover the throwing of objects from floats, and specifically included beads, doubloons and cups. In 1987, the inherent danger of coconut throwing forced the Zulu club to eliminate coconut tossing, due to the prohibitive insurance costs, so Louisiana legislature then added coconuts to the list. Despite this legislation, the 4th Circuit has ruled that certain claimants were entitled to sue for being hit. The drained coconuts are much more lightweight, and pose less danger to anyone hit in the head by one. These coconuts have always been the most highly coveted prize of Mardi Gras, and even with the legislated immunity, the Zulu club’s policy is that the coconuts are never to be thrown, with “The throwing of coconuts during the Zulu parade is positively forbidden. Coconuts will only be given out hand to hand.” Still, there have been several instances of flagrant disobedience to this rule, and there have been a few unfortunate injuries and lawsuits. So any float rider tossing coconuts is doing so in direct dissention to the Zulu standards.
Zulu Coconuts Over Time
It was in the early 50s when the coconuts began to be painted, and a method of sanding them with a wire brush removed the hair effectively before painting. At first, these coconuts were painted either gold and black or silver and black. The public received the silver ones, and the gold was given to sponsors. Over time, more and more krewe members got into the action, and the coconuts became more and more elaborately decorated, with more colors and glitter. And now, sadly, these time-honored Mardi Gras treasures can be purchased on Ebay by people whose feet may never even touch pavement hosting Mardi Gras parades. Some are advertised as vintage and rare, but this seems to be just unfair.