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Arts & Culture

Light The Way For Papa Noel: The Levee Bonfires

It’s an old South Louisiana Christmas Eve tradition to light bonfires off of large, wooden structures along the levee to shine the path for Papa Noel.

As a Texan, there are three things I love: 1) watching bonfires; 2) watching bonfires with crowds of fellow bonfire-lovers plus easily accessible hot chocolate; and 3) watching bonfires with crowds of fellow bonfire-lovers plus easily accessible hot chocolate near enormous bodies of water, such as the Mississippi River. Now, Texas often lacks the water component of this scenario, which makes me all the more excited to find it here at one of my favorite holiday traditions: Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee.

Bonfires on the Levee (Courtesy of New Orleans Plantation Country)

This Christmas Eve, pack the car full of your closest friends or most tolerable family members and take a drive down to Gramercy, La. in St. James Parish, where the sign as you travel into town reads “The Bonfire Center, Spend Christmas Eve with Us.”  And you should.

Each year along the levee across South Louisiana, locals ignite bonfires to light the way for Papa Noel. You’ll know you’ve reached the right area as you start to pass car after car pulled off the road, and people of all ages, from all manners of places, strolling down toward over one hundred 20-foot, pyramid-like structures made of cane and willow, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

The bonfire tradition itself also stretches back in time more than a hundred years, when French settlers brought it to Louisiana at the end of the nineteenth century from Europe. But these days what was once a local tradition, unique to a small region, has become something much bigger. Families from around the state bring multiple generations of  relatives to watch the fiery pyres shoot orange crackles of flames into the night sky for what feels like miles.

Which means these days local traditions are buttressed by more contemporary additions, including a tent where you can purchase concessions guaranteed to give kids the sugar highs they need to stay up til midnight before crashing harder than the stock market: hot chocolate, strawberry covered funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar, doughnuts, etc. And of course, the essential contemporary pairing of beverages of all varieties, plus porta potties so you don’t have to speed home, also avail themselves to bonfire crowds.

In addition to traditional structures, the bonfire designers always add a lil local humor. Past playful wooden structures include a log cabin, a southern mansion, a ship, an airplane, and the Louisiana state capitol, all built and burned by local residents. My favorite last year was a twenty-five foot bag of Zapp’s potato chips, which etched the Zapp’s logo in the sky in orange sparks as it burned with the same snaps and crackles that make the chips so tasty.

And of course, just to make the night a more extravagant spectacle, fireworks are set off, ensuring Papa Noel will be able to make his way from the sky to the river, and right into all the homes on his list.

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