300 years of bonfires on the levee: Burning tradition endures test of time – L’Observateur
300 years of bonfires on the dike: Burning tradition survives the test of time
Published Saturday 24 December 2022 10:28 am
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LAPLACE — For 300 years, bonfires have been lit on the Mississippi River embankment in the parishes of St. James and St. John the Baptist every Christmas Eve, but much about the origins of this celebrated tradition remains a mystery.
A number of stories, passed down through the generations, have attempted to explain the history of the bonfires, according to KiKi Mannear, senior communications and engagement manager for the River Parishes Tourist Commission in Louisiana.
“A holiday tradition older than a local can remember. It is speculated that bonfires on the dam were a celebratory practice introduced by the Franco-German settlers of the River Parishes of Louisiana in the early 1800s,” Mannear said. “Some say the enslaved built them at the end of the harvest season to celebrate. Still others claim that the fires were used to light the believers’ way to midnight mass. However, ask any of the local children and they will tell you that the bonfires light the way for Papa Nöel (Santa Claus) to find all the good boys and girls of the River Parishes.”
Back in the 1990s, Emily Chenet Guidry interviewed some of the area’s oldest residents for her article Bonfires on The Devee: A Christmas Eve Tradition Along the River Road.
Guidry’s research has identified the presence of bonfires erected in certain parts of Europe, the remnants of an ancient Celtic tradition dedicated to the worship of the sun during the summer and winter solstices. Communities that depend on agriculture believed the ceremonial fires would signal a quicker return to spring and lengthen the summer season.
Bonfires took on a new religious meaning with the advent of Christianity, with summer bonfires burning in June to commemorate the birthday of John the Baptist. Meanwhile, the winter solstice bonfires turned into bonfires on Christmas Eve.
Originating from Germanic Europe, early settlers of the River Parishes are believed to have passed on their knowledge of summer and winter fires. “La Cote des Allemands” or “The German Coast” was established in the early 1720s and included early settlements on the west bank of the Mississippi. In what is now St. John the Baptist Parish, settlers moved to the area now known as Lucy before claiming east bank farmland in present-day Garyville and Reserve. The region was under French rule until 1768 when Louisiana was delivered to the Spanish. Cajuns came from Nova Scotia and blended French and German cultures.
The historical texts of the period lack mention of campfires, which may have prompted subsequent generations to invent stories attempting to explain their origin.
The earliest known photograph of the Christmas Eve bonfires was taken in 1871 on the causeway in front of Laura Plantation, then known as Duparc Frères & Locoul Plantation, on the west bank of St James Parish.
Beacons continue to line the causeway each year in the parishes of St James and St John, while it is unknown if the fires ever reached down the river to the neighboring parish of St Charles, also considered part of the German coast.
Today, the Festival of the Bonfires serves as a prelude to the Christmas Eve bonfires each year with food, live entertainment, crafts, rides and the first two bonfires of the season. This year’s festival was the 33rdapprox Annual event, December 9-11 in Lutcher.
According to Mannear, most modern Christmas Eve bonfires are built in the traditional teepee style, with a center pole anchoring the structure.
“Others come in different shapes and color schemes,” Mannear said. “Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires, known for their intricate structures, has a massive 15-foot bullfrog for this season.”
The lighting of the bonfire begins promptly at 7:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, unless conditions are unfavourable. In the past, weather conditions have pushed back the lighting to New Year’s Eve.
Most bonfires are open to the public until December 24th. Garden chairs, blankets and freezers can be brought to enjoy the lighting.
According to the builders of Blood, Sweat and Bonfires, “Some bonfires feature food and other items, but it’s always safe to treat this event like a tailgate or Mardi Gras parade and bring what you need.”
Mannear described the campfire tradition as “one of the most publicized stories of Louisiana’s River Parishes,” attracting thousands of participants each year from around the world.
“The excitement of witnessing something so different and spectacular draws thousands of visitors each season to get their first glimpse of the fires. Transportation companies even charter buses from neighboring cities like New Orleans to drop off visitors to explore the fiery splendor,” she said. “Our hotels, restaurants and attractions are very busy this time of year as we welcome travelers from around the world to Louisiana’s River Parishes. Their experiences are shared with friends and family, which attracts new guests every year who want to try our unique flavors out here.”
For more information about the tradition, including resources for building a bonfire, visit the Louisiana River Parishes website at https://lariverparishes.com/bonfirecountry/
Outside of the Christmas season, there are currently two locations where the iconic bonfires can be appreciated. The St. James Welcome Center offers a recreation of the area’s famous campfire structures as well as opportunities to learn about all things to do and see in Louisiana’s River Parishes.
Also open to tourists year-round is “Saint,” a massive wooden alligator created by Blood, Sweat and Bonfires to serve as Bonfire Country’s official mascot. Located just off I-10 at exit 206 in LaPlace, Saint is over 50 feet long and pays tribute to the creatures of the Louisiana swamp that inspire individual bonfires each holiday season.
Mannear teased that more plans were in the works to bring the bonfires to life year-round for locals and tourists alike.
“This plan is still being developed, although we hope to share more concrete information soon,” she said.