Christmas Eve Bonfires

Christmas Eve Bonfires

December 22, 23, and 24
The state of Louisiana contains four parishes (the equivalent of counties) called the river parishes, named for their position along the Mississippi River. This cluster of communities, located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, forms part of the state's Cajun Country, a region that has preserved distinctive ethnic traditions. One such community, St. James Parish, has a popular Cajun tradition that takes place during the three days before Christmas in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina.
According to the festival organizers, the tradition of the Christmas Eve bonfires most likely came from such European countries as France and Germany, the home countries of many early settlers of the St. James area. In those and other European nations, fires commonly marked the Christmas season, as well as St. John the Baptist's Feast Day Eve on June 23. The tradition of fires on these occasions in turn most likely sprang from pagan rituals marking, respectively, the winter and summer solstices.
The Christmas bonfire tradition in Louisiana dates back to the 1880s. There are several theories about how the current practice originated, but the most common explanation is that the bonfires lit the way for the arrival of Papa Noel, the Cajun version of Santa Claus. After World War II, the bonfire structures expanded into more elaborate creations, taking different forms and reaching 25 feet high.
Once restricted to small fires built by family groups, the tradition now calls for dozens of huge blazes lining the levee for miles along the local River Road. Some residents begin building the bonfires the day after Thanksgiving. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, local residents work together to collect materials and to construct the bonfires. A bonfire is lit on each of the two days before Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas Eve, nearly 100 bonfires are ignited before a large crowd. Fire chiefs give a signal at 7:00 p.m. Christmas Eve (weather permitting) and the fire-tenders simultaneously ignite the fires. The event draws thousands of revelers to the area for the bonfires as well as a series of pageants, music performances, and cook-offs accompanying the main event.
The local community of Lutcher provides a preview of the Christmas Eve bonfires with an annual Festival of the Bonfires that takes place in a public park on a weekend early in December. The three-day event features live music, food, crafts, and carnival rides, as well as the lighting of a single bonfire on each night of the festival. This preview festival celebrated its 18th anniversary in 2007.
CONTACTS:
St. James Parish
P.O. Box 106
Convent, LA 70723
800-367-7852 or 225-562-2266
References in periodicals archive ?
The seven-night "Cajun Christmas" cruise on the Lower Mississippi River, departing from New Orleans on December 21, features Oak Alley Plantation in its holiday finery, Christmas Eve bonfires along the levee lighting the way for Santa and a traditional Reveillon-style feast.
On Christmas Eve, guests may join the throngs aboard a Mississippi River boat and take in the seduction of the Christmas Eve bonfires that blaze up and down the mighty river.