Lighting the Big Ditch: Christmas Eve Bonfires

The people that live along the levees in Southwest Louisiana have a Christmas Eve tradition that has always captured my attention. Twice I’ve booked voyages on the river boats that cruise the Mississippi River to see the Cajuns light the bonfires that are built along the levee of the mighty river. The first time I did it, I was transfixed by the bonfires and the mysterious tradition and people that might be out on the levee enjoying the warm blaze. As I watched from the river boat, Russian sailors cruised by on enormous ocean liners coming in from the Gulf of Mexico to dock in New Orleans. They stood on the decks and watched just as I did with the lights of the fires flashing in their eyes and with smiles on their faces.

Note: Select pics to view captions.

I was always told that they light the fires to guide Papa Noel on Christmas Eve to the long ago Cajuns in the inlets of the bayou. As I read about the tradition today, I discovered that beautiful tale may not be the whole truth but it is surely the sweetest truth. Historians speculate that initially the fires were built on New Year’s Eve as family celebrations and to encourage people to burn up the brush that washed up all over the place. As time went on, the parties moved to Christmas Eve. I don’t know how it started, but I know how it is now. That is, I know from the view of an onlooker; I am not a local in this area, so I’ve only come to gawk.

My parents live in Southwest Louisiana, so we packed a picnic and started the drive over to the area where the bonfires abound. We crossed over the Sunshine Bridge, a bridge that has always seemed to me to be out of place. It is definitely a big city bridge built in the middle of nowhere. Momma says everybody thought it was a stupid idea when it was built. But it really changed the economic landscape of the area by giving the formerly isolated people quick access to better paying jobs. We stopped by the nativity scene in front of Manresa Retreat Center for a few pics and a quick dog walk. Almost immediately, we began to see the bonfires – at first, isolated ones….then, as we reached Lutcher, they sat side by side in a long row of wooden pyramids.

Most of the fires are built in St. John and St. James Parishes. They begin building them after Thanksgiving, and they are lit simultaneously at 7 PM on Christmas Eve. From what I observed today – the first time I’ve actually driven over and seen them up close – it’s a party that would be fun to attend. The bonfires, although heavily regulated now due to accidents in the past, have different looks and styles. Many this year had tributes to the Sandy Hook Elementary victims. One was in the shape of a Jack Daniel’s bottle….I’m pretty sure they will have some of the same this evening. Another one featured a Cajun Santa Claus riding in a pirogue (a boat used to navigate the Louisiana bayous) pulled by two alligators. Many were stuffed full of firecrackers to jazz up the party.

The houses along the levee were set up for parties. Some had a tables and chairs set up in the garage. Many had tables of food and drinks in the yard with people milling around. Some places were selling food, miniature bonfires or bonfire Christmas ornaments. Everyone was eating and drinking, walking up and down the levee looking at the bonfires that were doused in kerosene. As we walked by each bonfire, the stench of the kerosene was so strong that it took my breath away. I dared Daddy, who was smoking a cigar, to throw one in one of the soaked bonfires to see the looks on the people’s faces across the street. Yeah….I don’t think so. But, I’ll just bet somewhere in the past, those bonfires have been lit prematurely by some young hoodlums or a drunk ex or two. It would just be way too tempting.

I would have loved to have stayed awhile and talked to some of the locals, listened to their stories about the bonfires of the past and maybe tasted some of the local cuisine. I had already munched on some boudin earlier that day, and I was primed for some Cajun food. But, traffic was starting to get heavy. I’ve heard that it is wall to wall people down there by the 7 PM lighting. One of these years, I’m going to go and hang out for awhile. I just have to figure out how to get to know some of those folks. If I know Louisiana people, though, it really won’t matter. I’ll just stop to chat them up, and we’ll be fast friends almost at once. That’s just the way they are. Warm, light, fun and simple….just like those fires on Christmas Eve.

8 Comments on “Lighting the Big Ditch: Christmas Eve Bonfires

  1. Talk about local color! Those bonfire structures are amazing, and what a neat tradition. BTW, I love the way the photos work now…much improved.

    Merry Christmas!!

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