- Nov 26, 2016
- central NC
The Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, LA is home to a unique holiday lighting display – the Christmas Bonfires. Dozens of 20-feet-high flaming pyramids of burning logs are built along the earthen levees each December and set ablaze on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas Bonfires, as locals call them, are mostly teepee-shaped, but some pyres are quite elaborate and are built to pay homage to the river’s heritage. The shapes range from miniature plantation homes to tiny replica paddlewheel steamships. These bonfires are built by families, friends and co-workers who use the event as an opportunity to fellowship and share a meal between the fires. It’s a local celebration with an environment akin to football tailgating and the practice has been passed down for generations.
The custom of building the bonfires was most likely established in St. James Parish between 1880 and 1900. Father Louis Poche, a Jesuit priest and native of St. James Parish, remembers hearing from his family that the bonfire custom in Louisiana was started in St. James by the French Marist priests who came to Louisiana after the Civil War to teach at Jefferson College, then a Catholic college in Convent, Louisiana. South Louisiana was originally a French colony and today’s residents remain predominantly Catholic.
The French expression for bonfire is feu de joie, or "fire of joy." In Manuel de folklore Francois contemporain, Arnold Van Gennep explains the custom of feux de joie in France:
“Feux de joie were part of religious holiday celebrations and were held several times a year, including the Eve of the Epiphany, New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, and in some places the feast of the patron saint. In other parts of France they were held only on the Eve of the Epiphany or on Christmas Eve.” Much of this custom in France disappeared in the early twentieth century.
The holiday bonfire custom in south Louisiana seems to have definitely been derived from the French custom. Of course if you ask the young and the young at heart why they set the bonfires, most say the fires illuminate the way for Papa Noel’s (that’s Cajun for Santa Claus) flying sleigh and eight alligators to find the homes of the local good girls and boys.
The bonfires are built all along the river, but the highest concentration is in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina. All bonfires must have permits from the Levee Board. In Gramercy the following are Levee Board regulations:
1. Fires must be at least 125 feet apart.
2. Fires can be no higher than 25 feet. (This rule went into effect in 1987; it was 28 feet for a few years prior to 1987; before then, there were no regulations.)
3. Fires can be no larger than the crown of the levee-12 feet in diameter.
4. No tires, creosote, or "foreign matter" may be used, due to environmental concerns.
5. Each town is allowed one "tourist attraction" with no regulations at all.
@Southern Unionist and I enjoyed visiting the Christmas Bonfires this year and highly recommend it. If you go consider taking a motorcoach tour. Otherwise you will likely be stuck in traffic. Plan to arrive by 7:00 when the fires are lit and the fireworks begin.
Note: @Southern Unionist deserves all the credit for these pics.