The tradition can be traced as far back as the 1880s in St. James Parish.
Every Christmas Eve, 30-foot bonfires are built along the levees of the Mississippi River along St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes in towns like Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina.
They are lit at precisely 7 p.m. Central on Christmas Eve, so they can light the way for Papa Noël as he travels up the river in a pirogue pulled by eight alligators, led by Alphonse, according to Cajun lore. Other legends say the bonfires were built for ships on the river; or even the way to Midnight Mass.
But as the years have passed, the tradition of the Christmas bonfires, or Bonfires on the Levee, has grown, and the bonfires, traditionally pyramid-shaped, have gotten more elaborate.
Take Joshua Weidert’s bonfire this year. He and friends Troy Torres and Curtis Pellissier have constructed a giant alligator snapping turtle that actually snaps, according to The Advocate.
It’s named “Snappa Claus,” according to their Facebook page, Blood Sweat and Bonfires, where photos and videos of the construction are posted.
Today, nearly 140 bonfires will populate the levee for the Christmas Eve lighting in the river parishes. There’s even a Festival of the Bonfires Association, which helps permit and insure the bonfires in St. James, where 110 structures have been approved.
The bonfires can take days or even weeks to build, depending on how elaborate the structure becomes.
Then on Christmas Eve, when the bonfires are lit, families will tailgate, tend the fires, visit with friends, eat and drink and watch the fires.
If you go
It is recommended that you get into the area before 6 p.m. The fires will be lit at 7 p.m. Parking is available in lots along LA 641. Please do not park in lots that are roped off! There will be a 3 to 4 block walk to the levee. If you are interested in driving through, take LA 3213 to LA 44 (Exit before the bridge). This will take you to the first bonfire. Drive along River Road through Gramercy and Lutcher.