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Carrying the Torch
Flambeau Barers Shed Light on Early Mardi Gras Traditions
Between the colorful floats and raucous marching bands, a humbler – yet no less staid – Mardi Gras tradition slips between the cracks in the marching order. Keepers of the light are known to lead the way for those lost in the dark and that is a perfect way to describe a flambeau carrier.
They carry large, wooden poles with torches backed by stainless steel high above. In the original New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, the flambeau
were carried by slaves and free people of color alongside the floats. They
Though they had a utilitarian function, the addition of the flambeau also
had a social element: to incorporate blacks in what was considered a white
To many people, the tradition remains important, and helps keep the Mardi
Gras parades authentic. What many people fail to realize is that many
Flambeau carriers were never forced to be carriers. They were always paid.
Originally they were paid $1.50. After World War II, the price was raised
Eventually, the problems was resolved, and the flambeau were back alongside the floats. The pay is much higher these days and carriers can make up to $ 300 or $ 400 from the tips received from paradegoers.
“It was a hell of a lot of fun and I always made at least a $100. It was really tiring though,” said Matt ‘Slyfox’ J Thomas, a local New Orleans resident who happened upon being a flambeau carrier. “I never talked to anyone about being a carrier. It’s just something you find out about. I just went to the beginning of the parade route a few hours before the parade started and they gave me a number and a flambeau.”
Though Thomas never talked to anyone directly there are people out there who specifically recruit for flambeau carriers. Barry Donahue is a flambeau coordinator for three parades: Chaos, Proteus, and D’etat. Donahue has been a flambeau coordinator for the past 15-20 years and is very opinionated on how the carriers should act in the parades.
“New-line krewes have them dancing and twirling the flambeau, and that is the not the main idea. We want to show people what it was like in the 1800s,” states Donahue. “Old- line krewes have the carriers stand beside and light the floats like it was back in the 1800s.”
Old-line krewe refers to the original krewes of Mardi Gras, while new-line or super krewes refers to the newer krewes. Not all krewes have flambeaux but they are looking to add them. Most krewes own their flambeaux but a few rent from the other krewes. Proteus actually uses the original flambeaux in which the burners used are from streetlights.
Nowadays, the torches are kept lit by propane, as opposed to kerosene in times gone by. They also are a lot safer and do not drip like the old ones. The flambeaux have injured no carriers or tourist. It used to be the carriers wore white, hooded gowns gowns called Dominos to protect from the flame and catch the soot from the flambeau. Proteus and Chaos have some of their carriers where the domino in white, while Orpheus have their carriers wear red dominos.
Even though flambeau carriers started out as slaves and free people of color, it has become more of a mixed tradition. Today, 75 percent of the carriers had previous ancestors who were carriers, and continue the tradition. But anyone can become a carrier. Carriers vary from high school coaches, ROTC members, students, to the unemployed. Some carriers travel from all over the country just to have the honor of carrying a flambeau. People who do it enjoy it because they get to experience Mardi Gras in a different way and be part of something that has been going on for centuries.
And even with the parades less than three weeks away, the ranks of flambeau aren't even full yet for this year. Donahue said is still looking for carriers for the parades he manages. Anyone is welcome to meet at the corner of Camp and Julia for Proteus and Chaos around 3 pm and at Jefferson and Magazine at the same time for D’etat.
“We want tourists to see and remember where Mardi Gras comes from. One day we will get back to the traditional way of carrying flambeau,” Donahue said. However, one can say that not only tourists need to see and remember where Mardi Gras comes from. Seeing the parades pass by so many times, native New Orleanians could use a reminder as well.
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B. E. Mintz
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Minced Media, Inc.