Leave it to the Cajuns to redefine the meaning of “Christmas lights”.
For miles along the levees of the Mississippi River, Christmas Eve in St. James Parish, Louisiana is ushered in by over a hundred enormous bonfires. Although not everyone agrees on how the Christmas bonfire tradition began, most people do agree that there’s a real beauty to the 20-foot flames that light up the night sky.
Some believe it began as a way to light the path for those attending Christmas Eve Mass after dark. Others think it was started as a beacon to help Papa Noel (the Cajun Santa Claus) find his way to children’s homes. Whatever the origin of the tradition, the “feux de joie” (fires of joy) bring many families and friends together each year on Christmas Eve.
Preparations for the bonfires begins soon after Thanksgiving as people in the community build extravagant wooden pyramids along the river. While bonfires can be found in many parts of Louisiana, the Parish of St. James has really embraced the tradition, particularly the small riverside communities of Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina, along Highway 44.
On Christmas Eve, the festivities begin at around 7 pm, when the fire department gives the “go” sign and the pyramids are set ablaze. Fireworks are usually part of the celebration too. The fires line the levee for miles and attract thousands of visitors. It’s no wonder, as the long line of fires reflecting on the water is a spectacular sight.
If you’d like to be a part of this tradition, there are a few ways you can participate. You can walk along the levee and experience the many different celebrations taking place around the fires. Each one is typically surrounded by family members who built the fire. Stop and chat with these friendly folks along the way. You can also opt to get there before dark, scope out a parking place and “tailgate”. Many people bring their own food, but there are usually vendors out selling delicious gumbos and other authentic Cajun foods. (Driving directions and parking advice can be found here). Another option is to leave the transportation to someone else by taking a bus tour.
If you go, you’re sure to enjoy this this unique Louisiana take on “Christmas lights” and perhaps even make it part of your annual celebration.
Wishing y’all a very Merry Cajun Christmas!