Centuries-old Christmas Eve bonfire tradition continues

Hurricane Ida’s winds had no impact on planning. Nor did recent flooding quench the excitement. Wars, plagues and the passage of time – these bonfires have been lit on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve for 300 years at least — have never been reason to cancel. It is a tradition that has its roots in ancient culture and has been continued by French and German settlers in the River Parishes, St. James, St. John and St. Charles. Christmas Eve bonfires along the levees will burn brightly on Christmas Eve 2021. A second bonfire event, the Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher, is a “go” despite recent flooding of the administrative offices, as reported by organizer Jamie Vicknair.

“I’m incredibly honored and excited to announce the return of the full slate of Bonfire Season events for 2021,” said Louisiana’s River Parishes Executive Director Jay Robichaux. “Our citizens need a reason to smile and celebrate, and this incredible tradition dating back to the founding of the River Parishes showcases our incredible heritage and culture in a way that is unique to only Louisiana.”

The Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher began Thursday, Dec. 9 with music by Mothership and Rock Show NOLA. The festival opened up again Friday, Dec. 10 with music by Kaleb Olivier, Nashville South and Karma. Other Friday happenings were a Gumbo Cook-Off and a festival bonfire lighting on the levee. On Saturday, the festival included a 4-H Cookie, art and bonfire (children and parents) contest. Santa arrived. Peyton Falgoust took the stage. Lighting of the bonfire on festival grounds was at 6:30 p.m. with the 32nd annual fireworks show after. The Molly Ringwalds performed at 10 p.m. The festival opens  again today, Dec. 12 for a run/walk, car show and entertainment by local school choir groups, bands, dance teams and bell choirs and cheerleaders.

During Bonfire Season, there are other attractions throughout the River Parishes, including the replica bonfire structure at the St. James Welcome Center, and “Saint,” the 50-foot wooden alligator bonfire mascot of the season. Saint was designed by Garyville’s Bonfire Builders, who have their own shop in Bonfire Country named “Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires.” The Gramercy Fire Department also holds an annual open house, where guests can learn more about the history and tradition of the bonfires and the people who have kept this tradition alive.

“It’s a big deal. There’s always a bonfire showpiece that someone has spent months building,” said Renee Ory who grew up nearby in LaPlace.

Jamie Vicknair mentioned a large crab structure, but most are tepee-like in appearance.

At 7 p.m. on December 24, structures in Grammercy, Lutcher and Paulina that have been built on the levee of the Mississippi are doused with diesel and set ablaze. Crowds gather to watch. Children love hearing that the fires are there for a very important reason. They light the way for Papa Noel, the Cajun Santa.

Gloria Garsee Brooks remembers the year she visited for the first time.

“My children have a picture etched in their minds of my parents walking hand-in-hand on top of the levee from tent to tent, sharing gumbo and stories with complete strangers, waiting for Papa Noel to come down the Mighty Mississippi in his pirogue,” she said.

For those who have never been, the fire departments keep a close watch. Only permitted families or groups can build fires in certain locations. Dimensions and materials are carefully controlled, unlike the years when tires were a popular fire “fuel.” No Hurricane Ida debris will be used. Structures are a maximum height of 15 feet from the base of the center pole to top of center pole. Builds are uniform except the city’s edifice and other municipal and nonprofit builds.

Blazes have always lit the night and warmed hands and hearts. Here, it is the blaze in the night of so many fires – 300 this year — that makes it a one-of-a-kind holiday experience.

It is recommended that tourists get to the area well before dusk to walk the three- to-four block walk to the levee, take pictures and tour the museum. Parking is available in lots along LA 641. If it is roped off, that means no parking. To drive through, take LA 3213 to LA 44 to the first bonfire. Drive along River Road through Gramercy and Lutcher. Bonfire season comes to a close on Christmas Eve.

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