Bonfires on the Levee — Building a Holiday Tradition
You might remember Truvy saying, “I don't want to miss the Nativity made entirely out of sparklers!”
In “Steel Magnolias,” the Louisiana-set movie from the 80s, Dolly Parton’s Truvy makes known her favorite Christmas tradition and, like Truvy, we all have our favorite holiday customs. Louisiana certainly does not disappoint, offering festivities, decorations and tables full of festive cheer throughout the state.
Where are Louisiana's Christmas Bonfires Celebrations?
No offense to Ms. Parton’s sparklers, but we imagine that they can’t hold a candle to the Christmas Eve bonfires lit on the Mississippi River levee. We’ve discussed Louisiana bonfires before on this blog and they are a beautiful community event going back generations. Families, friends and coworkers build them and spend the evening visiting and cooking in their lovely glow. The best Christmas Eve viewing is by car in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina along the River Roads on both sides of the Mississippi River (La. Hwys. 44 and 18, respectively). The Festivals of the Bonfires takes place in Lutcher and includes a gumbo cook-off, live music, as well as a few of the famous burning structures.
History of Louisiana's Bonfires
Early French and German residents brought the custom to Louisiana, and lit the bonfires to either guide ships along the river, provide a pathway for holiday church goers or light the way for ‘Papa Noel,’ the Cajun Santa Claus. But whatever the purpose, the tradition is carried on each year, building the bonfires in a cone or pyramid shape on the levee in a method rooted in tradition and passed and cherished from generation to generation. If you’re wondering how they construct these 15-foot-tall structures, see below for the recipe for one of the oldest Christmas traditions in the country!
A Louisiana Bonfire “Recipe” - How to Construct a Bonfire
- The wood most often used comes from trash trees whose gathering helps clear out overgrowth. Hardwoods are avoided. Willow trees and other fast-growing, dry varieties work best and adding cane reed gives it a festive pop and sparkle while burning.
- Traditional, pyramid-shaped bonfires have four, six or eight sides. Six is the most traditional, resulting in a hexagon-shaped base.
- Ground the center pole at least 2 feet deep and so that it stands no higher than 15 feet, per regulations. Prepare a circular piece of plywood, cutting a half-moon shape into the circle’s diameter for each of the side poles, evenly spaced around the circle.
- Add your side poles, grounding them securely, each at the same distance to the center pole and leaning in. The further away from the center pole, the longer logs you will need. Ensure the base area does not cover more 12 x 12 feet. Wire the side poles to the plywood using 16-pound wire or larger.
- To begin boxing your bonfire, form the first side by laying a log inside two of the side posts. Do the same for every other side, leaving an open space in-between. For a six-sided bonfire, you’ll lay three logs for the first layer.
- Place logs for the remaining sides in the same fashion, topping the first layer at the corners at the inside of the bonfire.
- Repeat the process, using smaller logs as you move up the bonfire to create the iconic pyramid shape.
- As the structure gains height, fill the center with leftover pieces of wood, smaller logs, branches and cane reed, heavier pieces on the bottom. This is called the gut.
- Diesel fuel can be added to the gut to aid in the burning and firecrackers and sparklers can add to the spectacle.
- Very carefully light your bonfire and enjoy its festive glow with your loved ones—Papa Noel is on his way!
Building bonfires along the Mississippi River requires permits purchased through The Ponchartrain Levee District to ensure the builders' and spectators’ safety.
Learn more about the holiday tradition of bonfires on the levee.