December is a magical time of year as many people celebrate the holiday season with traditional customs passed down from generations of their family and community! In Louisiana, this is especially true as we celebrate the coming of Christmas and the New Year in beautiful and unique ways. One of the rarest ways locals show their holiday spirit is through a Christmas tradition known as ‘the Bonfires on the Levee.’
The History of Bonfires
The history behind how the Christmas bonfires began is a bit blurry. This is perhaps due to the fact that the area of Louisiana now known as the River Parishes were settled by both French and German settlers who celebrated the holidays in various traditions. According to research, when they first arrived, the people of the area often only celebrated Christmas as a church obligation while New Year’s Eve was the time of gift giving and revelry. According to local history, families and friends would gather on New Years Eve for a feast of gumbo and eggnog. Then they would gather on the levee to watch the burning of a large cone-shaped bonfire to say goodbye to the previous year while celebrating the coming of new one. As with many traditions, this revelry gradually evolved toward what we now know as a Christmas celebration.
The more common modern and most cherished story is that the Christmas Bonfires on the Levee is a Cajun tradition developed to celebrate the coming of “Papa Noël,” the Cajun Santa Claus. It is said that the residents of the River Parishes (St. James, St. John and St. Charles) would light bonfires along the levees of the Mississippi River to light the way for Papa Noël with his pirogue drawn by alligators named Gaston, Ninette, TiBoy, Celeste, Suzette, etc. as they would deliver gifts. This wonderful story is recounted in the popular children’s book, Cajun Night Before Christmas.
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Building of the Bonfires
The residents of the River Parishes take great pride in the building of their bonfires. To create a bonfire, a family must first file a permit with Pontchartrain Levee Board. This is to be insured in case of an accident as well as notifying proper safety authorities. Then teams called the ‘Boys of the Bonfire Club’ will deliver logs, branches, kindling, and spars to help the families create their bonfires.
Each family often creates the traditional conical style – a center spar planted dead center in the ground while 3 or 4 other long spars are used as corner edges – meeting at the top of the center spar to create a pyramid. Next, shorter logs are stacked log cabin style to develop the outer wall of the pyramid. It is then filled with kindling, cotton doused in kerosene, and left over pieces of wood. Each bonfire averages about 20 feet high.
In recent years, whether it was to celebrate the holidays, their favorite sports teams, or unique Louisiana symbol, families have become more creative with their designs, adding a little flare to the tradition.
How to Experience the Bonfires on the Levee
If you can make it, the most popular way to experience the Bonfires on the Levee is as a family gathering on Christmas Eve. You should arrive at sunset, around 7pm, when the bonfires are set ablaze and bowls of hot gumbo and eggnog are served. However, if you can’t make it on Christmas Eve, there are also 2 other ways to experience the Bonfires on the Levee earlier in December:
- Oak Alley Plantation’s Annual Christmas Bonfire Party: Usually held the 1st Saturday in December, this is a bit more of an organized event held in nearby Vacherie, Louisiana at the famous Oak Alley Plantation. The party starts at 7pm where you are treated to an unbelievable Cajun/creole buffet style feast by workers in period plantation style costumes. Then around 8pm the brass quintet second line parades everyone to the levee where the bonfire is lit and Christmas carols are sung. From there, you can stay or return to the plantation for more great food, dancing, and fun. Don’t lollygag though because every year this event sells out quick and reservations are required. Please call 800-44ALLEY to purchase your tickets. Otherwise to learn more about the event, visit online at Oak Alley Plantation.
- Festival of the Bonfires: The Festival of the Bonfires is a wonderful small festival usually held the 2nd full weekend (Friday – Sunday) of December in Lutcher, Louisiana. Their slogan is “CHRISTMAS ON THE RIVER…CAJUN STYLE!” and they live up to the hype. Of course, you are there to see the bonfires, but the festival offers fun for the whole family. With live entertainment, crafts, Santa’s Very Merry Forest and carnival rides, it is easy to get in the holiday spirit as you wait for the lighting of the bonfire. Be ready to eat. There is a large variety of main courses like gumbo, jambalaya, boudin sausage, potato salads, and miscellaneous fried foods. But leave room for dessert as the Cajun Christmas treats arrive in full force with various types of bread pudding, brownies, funnel cakes, and even deep fried Oreos and Twinkies for the adventurous soul. Make sure you grab some hot cocoa or eggnog around 6:30pm. Then head outside to special buses that will shuttle you to the levee. Here at 7pm the Queens of the Festival will light the Bonfires. From there you can catch any of the shuttles back to the Festival to enjoy more food or dance the night away to live music. To see a calendar of events, visit Festival of the Bonfires.
Have you ever seen the Bonfires on the Levee in the River Parishes of Louisiana? Do you have Christmas traditions that are unique to your family or community? Tell us all about them in the comments below.
And as Papa Noël says at the end of the Cajun Night Before Christmas:
“An’ I hear him shout loud
As a splashin’ he go
‘Merry Christmas to all
‘Til I say you some mo’!”