Christmas on the River
The Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge can lay claim on one of the more unusual public December holiday lighting displays.
Celebrated in the small towns of St. James Parish, about a 45-minute highway drive from New Orleans, a fiery holiday tradition has families gather around 20-foot-tall structures to enjoy food and drink and good company, with tourists coming from all around for the spectacle.
It’s here on the earthen levees containing the Mississippi River that local Christmas lights aren’t colored bulbs, but instead dozens of 30-feet-and-higher flaming pyramids of burning logs. Bonfires are built by families, friends and coworkers who visit, cook and mingle between the fires. It’s a local celebration with an environment akin to football tailgating, and the practice has continued for generations.
The Prelude: Festival of the Bonfires
The city of Lutcher is celebrating the festival’s 26th anniversary this year from December 11–13. The festival, which takes place at Lutcher Recreation Park, includes many traditional Cajun activities from a gumbo competition that draws about 50 participants, live entertainment, crafts, children’s areas and much more.
This small, Southern town has something special that spectators won’t find anywhere else: A preview of Christmas Eve on the levee. On Saturday, December 12, the party moves from the park to the levee where a single bonfire will be lit at 7 p.m. The best viewing is by car along the east and west bank River Roads (La. Hwys. 44 and 13, respectively) and by walking along the levees.
Lighting the way for Papa Noël
Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River represent deep tradition for some Louisiana families and visitors alike, and more than 100 brilliantly burning bonfires are expected to light the levee along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve this year.
Why bonfires on Christmas Eve? It depends on whom you ask. Some say the Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River levee began more than 200 years ago as a way to light the way for travelers on the river heading to midnight Mass. Others hold that the dozens upon dozens of towering infernos have served as travel beacons, helping Papa Noël find his way to southeast Louisiana.
Fires of Joy
Christmas season bonfires, once popular in France, Germany and other parts of Europe, have been a large part of the seasonal celebrations in towns bordering the Mississippi River in South Louisiana, since the 1720s.
The French expression for bonfire is feu de joie, which translates to “fire of joy” in English. Tradition tells us that bonfires were part of religious holiday celebrations and were held several times a year in France, including the Eve of the Epiphany, New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve.
The first European settlers brought the custom with them to Louisiana, and its roots continue to flourish as families work together to create bonfires each year into amazing works of art. The bonfires were used long ago before the levees were built to help friends of the family find the inlets or slips coming off the river to the homes of those they wanted to visit on Christmas Eve.
In the mid-1950s, a residential subdivision developed along the River Road between the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy. With more young families living near the levee, the bonfire building custom exploded, and the once-quiet town soon became the site of a giant party.
Today, these bonfires line the levee for miles and attract thousands of spectators from near and far to celebrate the time honored Louisiana tradition.
Images courtesy of Louisiana Office of Tourism.