Yesterday while my friend Keri was driving down from Memphis, I got up at Momma’s house on Graveyard Island and sipped Community Coffee laced with eggnog. It rained off and on and looked like it was going to be a dreary Christmas Eve. Dressed in an Athleta skort and a t-shirt, I felt a bit disconnected from the Christmas spirit. They chose not to put up a tree this year because they have a rather lively puppy, it was sweaty warm, and it was so wet that even taking a walk or golf cart down the island was kind of gross.
I heard a noise outside, and I saw a thousand cormorants flying through the fog down the river. I ran outside to get a video but was too late to get a good shot. “They’ll be back,” Daddy said. So, I sipped more eggnog and kept checking the river to see if they had returned. Finally I saw a large raft of cormorants sitting in the path of a small tugboat. I could see where this was headed….
My friend Keri arrived at about 3 PM. I drove down to the Spunky Monkey to pick her up since the GPS doesn’t route to Graveyard Island. We had some more coffee, and I got a message from my friend JoAnn that the Christmas bonfires were still “on” down at the levee. We loaded up into the car and headed over to Grand Point to meet my friend and crash her family’s party in the age-old tradition that plays out every Christmas Eve in South Louisiana. Click here for more on the history of the tradition.
We drove across the sugar cane fields and flooded ditches to arrive in the middle of a field on a muddy dirt road. Hmmmm … “I don’t think this is the right way,” I said to Keri. We called JoAnn, and she couldn’t give us directions that made any sense to me so she came over to pick us up, and we followed her to her beautiful home in the community of Grand Point – which is apparently mostly her family.
We drove to the levee using the back way to avoid the traffic that was already building along the levee. It had rained for several days, and the teepee-shaped structures that would be lit later in the evening were covered in tarps and surrounded by young men trying to get them ready for the evening’s festivities. One group had a base camp set up behind their bonfire for launching fireworks. Another was being stuffed with fireworks that would automatically be exploded when the bonfire really got started. (We would later hear that one of the bonfires was stuffed with 300,000 fireworks.) Apparently, the more flashy (pun intended), the better.
We arrived at JoAnn’s family party hungry as she told us NOT to eat. Tables were set up for guest dining in the driveway, and under the carport was a makeshift bar complete with a sign saying that you had to be 21 to be served alcohol. Another table was staffed with men stirring cast iron cauldrons labeled with signs signifying the contents. Everything was free, but a tip jar was prominently displayed for those of us who wanted to help defray the costs of this “open” bar and restaurant that was packed with people from all over the state and even the country. I asked if this was all family and was told that the family puts it on, but anyone who wants to come by can and will be served. Holy cow… you don’t see that kind of generosity everywhere.
I saw a sign that said “Alligator Sauce Picante”, and I knew that a Midlife Moment would have to be had chatting with the chef of this delicacy. Ricky was his name, and he not only cooked the spicy thick sauce picante but he caught the gator, too. “How do you catch them?” I asked his wife. She explained that you hook them on a line, pull them in and shoot them in the head. “How do you haul them out of there?” I asked trying to imagine how you’d haul a big alligator out of the swamp. “Well you just carry them out,” she laughed and looked at her husband who flexed his biceps in response.
Ricky and his Alligator Sauce Picante
Even though I was full with the sauce picante, I sampled some shrimp pasta and red beans and rice gumbo. There was nothing that was less than delicious. We walked all the way through the house which was jam-packed with people and home-made goodies. With my tummy full, we decided to head out to the bonfires. They would be lit in less than 10 minutes, and we wanted to see it get started. A group lit early, and fireworks were already exploding amidst flames on a bonfire. As far as we could see down the levee, young men surrounded the bonfires trying to get them started after days of rain.
Timmy, the Parish President was serving up red bean gumbo
JoAnn told us that there is a committee that regulates the bonfire celebration. They manage the safety of the bonfires and coordinate the efforts so that it is fair for everybody. The families compete with each other unofficially, so it’s a bit of a community rivalry. They can’t start building them until after Thanksgiving. But, after the turkey day meal is done, young men spend all of their weekends and evenings cutting wood, buying fireworks and assembling their doomed creations. It is a huge event for everyone that lives there, and she said the most popular place for young couples to get engaged is at the holiday bonfires.
Pumping fuel on the fire
The bonfire nearest us was a little late getting started, but it had a complete fireworks display lined up behind it. This group seemed like seasoned professionals next to the group that started early and showed off their bravado with a literal explosion of firecrackers that went on for 15 minutes resembling artillery fire. It seemed a bit like overkill, and the smoke was so heavy that it obliterated our view of their bonfire. But they got our attention, so I guess that was the point.
I watched as a couple of guys lit the bonfire next to us and simultaneously sprayed it with copious amounts of some kind of fuel. As the fuel hit the flames, the bonfire exploded with fire. One of the young men spraying fuel was smoking a cigarette, and I worried a little about the safety of this whole thing. I was distracted by the fireworks show that began at the same time that the bonfire really got going. The full moon hung low in the sky and was a perfect backdrop for the scene that was unfolding before us.
We wanted to get a picture of the bonfires burning all down the levee, but, with the lights of the traffic and the dark, our cameras could not capture the scene. As far we could see in either direction, lighted teepees flamed into the night with throngs of people silhouetted against the fires. The sound of fireworks, laughter and crackling fires filled the humid air. Bumper-to-bumper traffic inched down the road taking in as much as of the scene as they could. It was a festival for all of my senses.
We left with our boots covered in mud, our hair filled with smoke and our bellies full. I imagine the party was just getting started. JoAnn said the bonfires will burn until about midnight, and the parties go on all night. When asked if all of the people who live on that road open their houses and kitchens for this, she replied that if you buy a house on that street, you have to be “into” this. One of our bartenders was from this area but now lives in California. He comes home to serve others for this event. Their enjoyment is not so much in the watching of the bonfires but in watching others enjoy themselves.
My worries about the rain for the bonfires was unwarranted. It rained a tiny bit but not very much. We laughed all night about how hot it was, and it didn’t help that we were standing by enormous fires that heated up the already warm humid air on Christmas Eve. Warmth was the story this year at Christmas all over the country, and it was no different in South Louisiana. But I must say that I didn’t mind sweating all that much last night when bathed in the warmth of a community who spends over a month preparing, planning, cooking and opening their homes to strangers for a one-of-kind Christmas experience.