Flambeaux at Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Flambeaux originated a century and a half ago to light the floats in night parades. Indeed, the first Flambeaux carriers were slaves and free men of color, that held lights which lit the way for the floats and night parades before there were electric streetlamps able to gather light in such focus that it would enable crowds on the routes to adequately see the style and fancy, of the parades.

The antics of these "carriers", were held in such regard that people would throw coins to them as a gesture of thanks for the laughter in the function in which they served. The coins are usually in the amounts of 25 or 50, cents and one dollar.

Flambeaux (that's the plural; the singular is flambeau) are burning torches carried in night parades by white-robed figures known for their uninhibited twirling, general clowning around and prancing They usually are made of torches mounted on wooden poles, although railroad flares sometimes are used. They are backed with sheets of aluminum to reflex the light given off by the torch. They are usually powered by kerosene, but some have used oil, and propane. Some of the big parades, notably Endymion, have gone one better and come up with space-age neon "flambeaux." They look great, but they somehow just aren't the same as the real thing.

The torch bearers were originally slaves of the wealthy owners who were able to finance any parades that the town held. Free men of color, mostly Creoles, came into the game after the civil war, when, holding slaves became unlawful.

Nowadays, most floats at night are all self-lighted, and the flambeaux carriers that survive are more fun, than functional. It has become controversial to carry the torches these days in New Orleans. Each year the once favored tradition is set upon by those who want it to go away, because of its heritage and the deeper meaning held by those who understand the long history from the African-American side. Soon this tradition, right or wrong, will leave us.

You'll see some parade-watchers, throwing coins to the carriers, rewarding them for their gyrations. This tradition of throwing quarters, dates back to when the only compensation for the task was thrown by the crowds in appreciation, not only for the light that they provided, but the show some would put on to keep the parade interesting.

Fewer and fewer night parades are using flambeaux, and the tradition may one day soon go the way of the glass bead.

Parades that continue to use flambeaux include:
Hermes, Babylon, Pegasus, Bacchus, Sparta and, to a lesser extent traditionally, Endymion, D'Etat.

Hermes parade 1991

Hermes Parade 1995

Endinyon parade 1992

night parade 1992

night parade 1990

Hermes parade 2004

Hermes parade 2008

night parade 2007

night parade 2008

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all images copyright Stan Strembicki, special thanks to MardiGrasdigest.com for Flambeaux history