Changing Planet

Bonfires Light the Way for Papa Noel in Louisiana

Being on the naughty list and not having a chimney are typical childhood concerns on Christmas. The most common question, “How will Santa find my house?” has a solution in Cajun country. It is a Christmas Eve tradition in the Louisiana river parishes to light the way for St. Nick, or Papa Noel, with large multi-structure bonfires along the Mississippi River levee.

Residents joke that Papa Noel is a little different from the conventional Santa Claus.  Children’s stories depict this bayou Santa in a pirogue pulled by alligators.

While some believe the bonfire tradition is a sort of a sleigh landing strip, others think it originates from German and French immigrants who settled on the bayou 200 years ago, according to Rhonda Lee, president of the Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher, Louisiana. Lee said these immigrants illuminated the levee as a guide to Christmas Eve mass.

Though the reason for the celebration is debated, the custom experienced a revival in the 1950s. Today, Lee said 1,300 residents build around 110 bonfires in St. James Parish, and this is just one observance.

Modern technology has affected construction. Before chainsaws became common, the 20 foot frames were built by hand and participants took the full four to five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to finish them.  Now, shells can be assembled in a matter of hours.

The traditional design is a teepee, but artists can create bonfires in array of shapes.  Some of my favorite structures found online were a fleur-de-lis and a New Orleans Saints football helmet. Lee said these statues are covered with fireworks.  Which she warned makes the lighting sound like an oncoming train.

What happens if it rains, Louisiana children ask?  Lee said she has only experienced this once — and she is a lifelong St. James resident.  But, she added that the permit allows the event to be moved to New Years Eve.

“You got everybody in St. James praying for good weather [right now],” she said with a laugh.

Caroline Gerdes recently graduated from Louisiana State University where she studied journalism and history (her major and minor, respectively). As a native of the Greater New Orleans Area, she decided to explore her own backyard with help from a Young Explorers Grant. Caroline is currently conducting an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward. She seeks to record the community’s full history — its immigrant beginnings, the development of jazz, the depression and prohibition, desegregation and hurricanes. Caroline’s exploration is also a personal quest as her father and paternal grandparents grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her blogs reflect an inside look at New Orleans life and culture, especially the edible aspects.
  • Verna

    Drove to Gramercy, Louisiana for the Papa Noel bonfires on Christmas Eve. A local tradition that is worth seeing. Bonfires are lit around 7PM And I suggest you get there by 5PM if you want a parking spot along the levees. About 50 or so bonfires and when they are lit, along with firework displays, it is a sight to see. Quite loud. Bring chairs and coolers and even a picnic to do a lot of people watching prior to the lighting. Some food available at food trucks but depending where you park, might be a long walk. Portable toilets are situated so as to be convenient. Well worth the trip to see a Cajun tradition.

  • Misty L Sokolowski

    If it’s too loud then your getting older

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