The Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge can lay claim on one of the more unusual public December holiday lighting displays.To Welcome Santa to Louisiana so he can find houses of local boys and girls.
It’s here on the earthen levees containing the Mississippi River that local Christmas lights aren’t colored bulbs, but instead dozens of 20-feet-high flaming pyramids of burning logs.
The Christmas bonfires, as locals call them, are mostly teepee-shaped, but some can be odd shapes paying tribute to the river’s heritage—shapes ranging from miniature plantation homes to tiny replica paddlewheel steamships. Bonfires are built by families, friends and co-workers who visit, cook and mingle between the fires. It’s a local celebration with an environment akin to football tailgating, and the practice has continued for generations.
Why bonfires on Christmas Eve? It depends on who you ask. Some historians believe they are a carry-down of an ancient European tradition where bonfires initially honored successful harvests and later from Christianity (south Louisiana was originally a French colony, and residents remain predominantly Catholic).
However, ask the young and the young at heart who continue the bonfire tradition today, and the most common response is that the fires illuminate the way for Santa Claus’ (or Papa Noel, as the Cajuns say) flying sleigh and eight reindeer to find the homes of local good girls and boys.
The bonfires are up and down the river, but the highest concentration is in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcherand Paulina. The best viewing is by car along the east- and west-bank River Roads (La. Hwys. 44 and 18, respectively) and by walking along the levees. Bonfire parties are not necessarily open to the public, but onlookers will likely be offered kind words and holiday greetings should they mingle on foot.