it’s Christmas time in Louisiana. Which means it’s cold and wet but a lot of fun—join me for a Cajun Christmas – the gumbo’s cooking enjoy- Lisa
One of them is the lighting of the bonfires along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve. These bonfires, erected on the river levees by the keepers of this old tradition, are intended to light the way for “Papa Noël,” the Cajun Santa Claus, on his airborne journey to the area.
t’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. Learn how to build a Louisiana bonfire.
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, Lutcher and 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.
Cajun Night before Christmas
The Cajun Night Before Christmas® has been a part of Louisiana’s holiday traditions since it was first published. Now, more than forty-five years later, a new generation is discovering the charm of Gaston® the Green-Nosed Alligator. First conceived by J.B. Kling, Jr. writing as ‘Trosclair’, the CLIO award-winning sales jingle for the Bergeron Plymouth Company in New Orleans was based on the Clement Moore poem. The exclusive rights were purchased by Pelican Publishing Company and the illustrations of then fledgling artist James Rice brought the story to life. Beloved master storyteller Coleen Salley narrated the read-along CD. Radio personality and voice talent Tommy Joe Breaux became the voice behind the recordings at City Park and on the audio version of the adventures of Gaston®. The book also created what has become the largest segment at Pelican Publishing—the children’s book division.
With the passing of publisher Dr. Milburn Calhoun and his wife Nancy Calhoun, illustrator James Rice, and the loss of Colleen Salley, the people behind the creation of the story are mostly gone. What remains is a long legacy of delight. Each year at the Celebration in the Oaks light show featuring the classic cabin from the story, dedicated staff from Pelican Publishing collect memories of attendees as they flow through the premiere preview parties. From now grown children who remember it as the first Louisiana tale they ever heard to young parents who laugh about a non-Louisiana spouse reading it to their children in full-blown Cajun accent, the book is universally loved and remembered. Teachers talk about how they use it in the classroom, business people mention they send it to out of state clients, and children laugh as they try to mimic the dialect that has all but disappeared from everyday life. The classic tale has been interpreted in gingerbread houses in competitions as far away as California and in cakes at the Edible Book competition at NOMA in New Orleans. For years, the miniature book ornaments have appeared on Christmas trees across the country as a reminder of a faraway Louisiana home. Even the New York Times praised the lilt, the humor, and the rough-hewn drawings of the Cajun tale. At Pelican Publishing, a huge portrait of Gaston® and his bearded friend hangs in the boardroom watching over each new author and illustrator that joins the family.