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Twirling and whirling, frolicking and dancing – these are the flambeaux carriers that illuminate the streets with the flames of their torches as they bring liveliness and excitement to the Mardi Gras parades. The tradition of the flambeaux serves an interesting purpose, was introduced at a Mardi Gras event, and originally had specific torch-bearers, but nowadays, many parades have kept the tradition alive, have slightly altered the torch designs, and have even changed parts of the Louisiana tradition itself. Although many people enjoy the flambeaux for their bringing of exhilaration and thrill, they actually used to serve a different purpose.
The flambeaux is an interesting item with a unique purpose, was first used in Louisiana at a specific place, and initially had people of a certain race carry them. Flambeaux are essentially hand-held torches designed for Mardi Gras celebrations. Its initial purpose was to bring light to the streets during night parades; however, they are ornamental and solely used for show in modern parades. Although it is claimed that a mystic society in Mobile Alabama was the first to have the flambeaux, the Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first Mardi Gras parade in Louisiana to introduce the flambeaux, bringing them to the streets of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday in 1857. The flambeaux lighted the way for the floats in the evening Carnival parades, and the carriers of the torches enjoyed parading around with enthusiasm, spinning the flambeaux in the air, and exciting members of the vast crowd. When Comus first presented the flambeaux, the torch-bearers were all slaves or free men of color, and the slaves had to have been allowed by their owners to participate in the festivities. Mostly African-Americans carry the flambeaux during the parades nowadays, but occasionally, one may see people of different ethnic groups carrying the flambeaux. Although the flambeaux are beginning to disappear from many parades, it might be surprising to know that Louisiana still has a lot of parades with the bright, imaginative torches.
In modern times, the tradition of the flambeaux has been kept by many parades, has had many design changes and improvements to the torches, and has been changed in many subtle but fascinating ways. Today, the flambeaux can still be seen at multiple parades, including Hermes, Babylon, Pegasus, Bacchus, Orpheus, Sparta, Endymion, and D’Etat, while only a few flambeaux flicker during the parades in Mobile. According to an article from The Times-Picayune, the Krewe of Grela (in Gretna, Louisiana) and the Krewe of Mona Lisa and Moon Pie (in Olde Town Slidell) also have kept the wonderful tradition alive. Over time, many changes have been made to the design of the flambeaux, and the changes include the addition of metal trays to reflect light, the use of fuel alternatives to pine-tar-coated rags (such as kerosene, butane, oil, and propane), and the switch from wooden posts to tall, metal poles. Even though some changes may seem pointless, the use of natural gas instead of tar or liquid fuels helps prevent the dripping of scorching material on the pole-bearers, and the metal backings make the scene much more eye-catching. Also, it may surprise some people that a few parts of the tradition itself have changed over time. Due to economic changes, it may now become more common to see people tossing dollar bills (rather than 25 and 50 cent pieces) to the flambeaux carriers, and parades, such as Endymion, have focused on leaving now-that’s-something-to-remember expressions on individuals’ faces through the use of colorful flames for the flambeaux. In the end, multiple parades in South Louisiana still have flambeaux, have slightly changed the torch designs, and have even changed the tradition itself, but most alterations seem to help keep the event alive.
Overall, the tradition of the flambeaux was important in the past and has luckily been kept alive throughout the years. The use of the flambeaux started for an interesting reason, began at a Mardi Gras event, and originally required carriers from certain ethnic groups, but in this day and age, many parades have retained the custom, have made new models of the flambeaux, and have somewhat modified the true meaning and purpose of the tradition. The flambeaux is a sliver of Louisiana’s history that is much more enthralling than one might think, and even though the practice dying out, it will hopefully remain alive for future generations.
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