Celebrate the holiday season and let the good times burn.
By: Amanda Ogle
Each year after Thanksgiving, friends and families across Louisiana’s River Parishes gather along the Mississippi River to construct about 200 20-foot-tall bonfires along the levee. Usually stretching for about 20 miles, the bonfires are lit on Christmas Eve as participants celebrate the holiday season with food, fireworks, and family and watch the bonfires burn for miles. Leading up to Christmas Eve, Bonfire Season includes parades, the Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher, and open houses where bonfire revelers can join in to celebrate the region’s history and cultures.
Stories on the bonfires’ roots in the region differ, but the holiday tradition is said to have been brought over by French-German settlers to the region in the early 1700s. Some theorize that the bonfires were used by the enslaved to celebrate the end of harvest season, and others claim the bonfires served as signals to guide ships along the river. There are also those who believe the bonfires were used to light the way for those attending Midnight Mass. A more modern take, and one that’s still told today, is that the bonfires are used to light the way for Papa Nöel (Santa Claus) so he can easily find all the children in the River Parishes.
In Garyville, Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires builds a massive bonfire on the levee every year for the celebration, with each delivering a different theme. Past bonfires have included alligator, brown pelican, guitar, crawfish, and turtle structures, and the bonfires usually see at least 1,000 people gathered around to celebrate. “The planning and construction part of building the bonfire is great, but my favorite part of it all is being up there with your friends and family” says Josh Weidert, a crew member with Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires. “It’s a great time to let the kids play, make memories, and cook some good food with your loved ones as you celebrate the season.”
Bonfires are located up and down the river, with the most being in St. James Parish (the Bonfire Capital of the World) in Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina, but there are many more across the river as well. Take the east-bank and west-bank River Roads (La. Highways 44 and 18) and you’re sure to find some fiery fun. Don’t miss the Bonfire Country mascot, Saint — a massive, 50-foot wooden alligator — at the St. James Welcome Center and snap a picture with him before you go. Stop by the Gramercy Fire Department’s annual holiday open house and learn about the area’s bonfire history and the people keeping the traditions alive. And while you’re watching the smoke from the bonfires, enjoy smoking a perique cigar for the ultimate St. James Parish experience, as perique tobacco exclusively grows here.
Whether you’re new to these traditions or grew up with them in Louisiana’s River Parishes, Bonfire Country is a unique and exciting way to light the night with stories, songs, fireworks, and beautiful bonfires that dazzle down the Mississippi River.