Being on the naughty list and not having a chimney are typical childhood concerns on Christmas. The most common question, “How will Santa find my house?” has a solution in Cajun country. It is a Christmas Eve tradition in the Louisiana river parishes to light the way for St. Nick, or Papa Noel, with large multi-structure bonfires along the Mississippi River levee.
Residents joke that Papa Noel is a little different from the conventional Santa Claus. Children’s stories depict this bayou Santa in a pirogue pulled by alligators.
While some believe the bonfire tradition is a sort of a sleigh landing strip, others think it originates from German and French immigrants who settled on the bayou 200 years ago, according to Rhonda Lee, president of the Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher, Louisiana. Lee said these immigrants illuminated the levee as a guide to Christmas Eve mass.
Though the reason for the celebration is debated, the custom experienced a revival in the 1950s. Today, Lee said 1,300 residents build around 110 bonfires in St. James Parish, and this is just one observance.
Modern technology has affected construction. Before chainsaws became common, the 20 foot frames were built by hand and participants took the full four to five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to finish them. Now, shells can be assembled in a matter of hours.
The traditional design is a teepee, but artists can create bonfires in array of shapes. Some of my favorite structures found online were a fleur-de-lis and a New Orleans Saints football helmet. Lee said these statues are covered with fireworks. Which she warned makes the lighting sound like an oncoming train.
What happens if it rains, Louisiana children ask? Lee said she has only experienced this once — and she is a lifelong St. James resident. But, she added that the permit allows the event to be moved to New Years Eve.
“You got everybody in St. James praying for good weather [right now],” she said with a laugh.