As we approach Christmas 2021 here in Bucharest, I find that I am verklempt at the prospect of not being with our kids or my mom for the holidays. This will be the first time in our married life that we aren’t with the kids or family. Covid, I hate you.
As I think about Christmas, I remember Christmas 2019 on the levees of the Mississippi in Louisiana. This was the Cajun Christmas Eve Bonfires, an event that has happened for two centuries or longer along the river on December 24.
Lighting the Way for Papa Noel
The origins of the bonfires tradition is unclear. They may date back to French Marist priests who came to Louisiana just after the Civil War to teach at local cottages, and adapted an ancient tradition that’s found throughout western Europe. Oral histories dating to the 1880s include mention of these fires. In the decades since, the annual event has become more popular with locals and tourists alike — just drive down state highways 18 and 44 on Christmas Eve, and you’ll notice long lines of spectators’ cars parked at the foot of the levees.
Once few in number, the local bonfires were originally a neighborhood or family oriented activity. Now they line the levee for miles and attract thousands of visitors up and down the river, with the highest concentration is in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. The best viewing is by car along the River Roads and by walking along the levees.
One popular explanation for the bonfires is that the bonfires were a “Cajun tradition,” first used to light the way for “Papa Noel,” the Cajun version of Santa Claus. This charming version 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.
Some Acadian exiles from Nova Scotia settled in St. James Parish as early as 1765, with many more arriving in the 1780s, but “Papa Noel” was not yet known to them. It was on New Year’s Eve that the little French children received their gifts.
In South Louisiana of old, Christmas was a strictly religious observance, and it was New Year’s Eve that was marked by the exchange of gifts and the “reveille” to see the old year out and to greet the new year.
We had heard that the event was not to be missed, so Tom and I and Aubrey, and Scott, and Indy headed for the levees. Traffic was heavy on the normally lightly traveled road, so we knew we were in for crowds. We waited in line to exit the highway, and then creeped along for forty minutes once we were on the surface road, until we could see the levees and the snarl of traffic. Never one who enjoys crowds, my hackles went up and I immediately sought an alternative. Since most people were turning right, we opted to take the road less traveled and turned left.
Brilliant idea! The largest bonfire, in the form of an alligator, was to the right, but to the left were the individual bonfires, exactly what we were hoping for. We parked the car and then headed to the levees on foot, our way lighted by the celebratory fires.
Lest you think these were piddling little bonfires like you see on beaches or shorelines elsewhere, let me assure you, these were MAGNIFICENT constructions, carefully engineered with craftsmanship passed down through the ages.
The Christmas bonfires, as locals call them, are mostly pyramid-shaped, but some can be more fanciful assemblages paying tribute to the river’s heritage—shapes ranging from miniature plantation homes to tiny replica paddlewheel steamships. Bonfires are built by families, friends, and co-workers who visit, cook, and mingle between the fires. It’s a local celebration that has lasted for generations.
In the past, “bonfire clubs” equipped with axes, hatchets and hand saws, cut trees, stripped them of their branches and hauled them, one by one, to the chosen levee-top site. The bonfire’s center pole was selected, placed upright, and secured in a hole several feet in depth. Depending on the shape intended, the center pole was supported by four or more side poles, interspaced with logs cut to a desired size. Discarded rubber tires, collected throughout the year, encircled the center pole, or were used along with other combustible materials in the bonfire’s center. When burning, the tires created a thick, dark smoke and multi-colored flames. A few days before the scheduled burning, the boys walked miles to secure freshly cut cane reeds to place within and around the structure. While burning, the cane reeds emitted a popping, firecracker-like sound.
Today, chainsaws have replaced axes, hatchets and hand-saws. Logs and cane reeds are transported to the levee top by pickup trucks rather than muscle power and determination. Still, the structures retain the traditional tepee shape, but with precisely cut logs helping to make artistic masterpieces. Non-traditional bonfires gradually emerged in the shape of plantation homes, riverboats, etc. —– structures of such beauty that it seemed a shame to burn them.
The bonfires can take days to build, depending on how much help you get from your friends. Given what we saw, folks had a lot of help, or nothing else to do for several days in late December.
We’ll think of you on Christmas Eve, Louisiana!