A Louisiana Christmas Tradition: Bonfires on the Levee
Lighting the way for Papa Noel.
It’s here on the earthen levees bordering the Mississippi River in St. James, St. John the Baptist and Ascension parishes that local Christmas lights aren’t colored bulbs, but instead dozens of 20-feet-high flaming pyramids of burning logs.
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 with an environment akin to football tailgating, and the practice has continued for generations.
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.
The young and the young at heart continue the bonfire tradition today. Ask a local about why bonfires are made and celebrated here, and the most common response is that the fires illuminate the way for Santa Claus’ (or Papa Noel, as the Cajuns say) flying his sleigh and eight reindeer to find the homes of local good girls and boys.
The bonfires are up and down the river, but the highest concentration is in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina. The best viewing is by car along the east- and west-bank River Roads and by walking along the levees. Bonfire parties are not necessarily open to the public, but onlookers will likely be offered kind words and holiday greetings should they mingle on foot.
Want to get into the bonfire-building spirit? Learn how to build your own Louisiana bonfire. You can explore more Christmas traditions in Louisiana along the Holiday Trail of Lights in north Louisiana and Cajun Christmas traditions.