Flambeaux: It’s a Mardi Gras tradition that has become revered as an art form today, having blossomed well beyond the practical purpose it first served. Over the past century and a half, city infrastructure has evolved, and Mardi Gras parades incorporate more high-tech LED lighting. But the flambeaux still evoke charm and nostalgia as they warm up the crowds for Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans even today.
Where did flambeaux come from?
Flambeaux (plural for flambeau, or a flaming torch) comes from the French word flambe, meaning “flame.” The first official Mardi Gras flambeaux debuted with the Mistick Krewe of Comus on Fat Tuesday in 1857.
In the beginning, the flambeaux were needed for revelers to see the Carnival parades at night. Originally, the flambeaux carried wooden rudimentary torches, which were staves wrapped with lit pine-tar rags. That evolved to oil-burning lanterns mounted on metal trays and long poles to prevent the flames from burning the carriers.
Flambeaux was a tradition that arose out of necessity but also illustrated elements of emerging American culture and social classes, as the flambeaux were originally carried by slaves and free men of color, namely Creoles. The torches turned into a spectacle as the men waved and twirled the torches while dancing down the street. Parade-watchers would throw tips to the torch carriers, often 25-cent or 50-cent coins, more in response to the elaborate performances than the light itself.
Keeping the flambeaux alive
Out of respect for this long-held tradition, several Mardi Gras krewes still kick off their parades with flambeaux. The torches themselves have been brought into the 21st century with backsplashes on the trays and natural gas for fuel instead of the more dangerous liquid sources. Also, an updated setup using gravity flow from a reservoir keeps four burners blazing no matter how long the parade might last. Parade-goers still offer tips to the flambeaux performers, though dollars often replace the quarters once used.
Flambeaux may no longer be needed for the crowd to see the parade, but they are still vital to the Mardi Gras tradition and likely won’t see their flame burn out anytime soon.