Bonfires on the levees
The word bonfire is said to derive from the Middle English bonefire, a fire of bone. In South America a bonfire is a large fire built in the open air. In Louisiana, a bonfire is a festive fire to which everyone in the neighborhood contributes a certain portion of material.
There is an area of South East Louisiana known as the River Parishes (St. James, St. John and St. Charles) that was settled along the lower Mississippi River in the early 1700’s by the Old World French and Germans. These early colonists brought with them the knowledge of both summer and winter bonfire customs and traditions which they had known in their native lands. By sharing this knowledge with their many descendants, it is said that they provided the inspiration for a practice which has evolved into one giant celebration – the present-day Christmas Eve levee bonfires!
There is one more recent and increasingly popular explanation. The bonfires were a “Cajun tradition”, first used to light the way for “Papa Noel”, as Cajuns called Santa Claus. This charming version, although improbable, has been depicted annually in front of a Paulina, LA business establishment where a levee scene shows “Papa Noel” with his pirogue drawn by alligators named Gaston, Ninette, “Te-Boy”, Celeste, Suzette, etc.
In the weeks following Thanksgiving, the levee has been alive with activity as scores of young people worked together, contributing labor and material to create the masterpieces that will be ignited on Christmas Eve.
Every year over one hundred 30 foot plus tall bonfire structures are built of wood, firecrackers, and occasionally bamboo along the Mississippi River levee near the town of Lutcher, Louisiana. These bonfires are laced with kerosene or lighter fluid, then weather permitting, the fire chiefs give the signal at 7 o’clock US Central Standard Time, and the St. James Parish residents simultaneously set a torch to their bonfires, re-enacting a fire ritual long-performed by their early European ancestors to welcome the arrival of Papa Noel on Christmas Eve.
All are welcome to join the merriment, now even special stern wheelers, paddle boats, or riverboats offer bonfire cruises down the Mississippi River. The Gray Lines out of the French Quarter packs a dozen buses and heads for Lutcher on Christmas Eve.
It is a Christmas Eve tradition, unless it rains, then it is promptly changed to a New Year’s Eve tradition.