Back in the early days of Mardi Gras in New Orleans before there was electricity the night parades needed illumination. So the carnival krewes hired people to carry the flambeau to walk along side each float. Flambeau literally means “torch” in French.
New Orleans Mardi Gras: What Are the Flambeau?
Traditionally the job went to black members of the community and pretty much stayed that way until after Hurricane Katrina. Many of the members of the New Orleans community who usually carried the flambeau had been scattered to the four corners. So non-traditional carriers (meaning whites and latinos) were in demand. Today you still see mostly black flambeau carriers with a smattering of whites and other ethnic groups filling in.
Most flambeaus are of simple design, a pail of kerosene at the top that gravity feeds fuel to burners. Some modern units run on gas attached to the carrier’s back. Despite how they look with these massive flames shooting out, they are actually pretty safe.
A flambeau carrier can make a couple hundred dollars during a parade from tips that people hand to them as they go along. When I was growing up folks would toss them coins and they would scatter to pick them up sometimes spilling fuel on the ground and each other.
Nowadays people hand them dollar bills as they stroll along. If you pay attention to the video you will see a guy in the street (actually my brother) reaching into his wallet and handing the carrier a buck. Many of these carriers will work several parades so you can see that it can be rather lucrative for them each year. So if you wanted to become a carrier you’d have to already know somebody who knows somebody to be able to carry and then on top of that there’d have to be an opening. It’s a plum carnival job.
Although practically the flambeau are no longer necessary to light up the night parades it’s still a tradition that adds this element of history and charm to carnival. May they forever light up the skies.
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