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NOLA History: Bonfires on the Levee

Blazing bonfires along the levee light the way for Papa Noel during the Christmas season.

Bonfires dot a levee, with fireworks in the background. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Although the main event comes once night falls, the spectacle begins earlier in the day. Dotted along different parts of the levee are what look a little bit like giant Jenga sets, if the pieces were huge wood logs put together to form imposing triangular structures. It’s an impressive sight. The levees—usually free of any ornamental features save the joggers, dog walkers, and bicyclists who frequent the paths that stretch out along these lumps of land—are now topped with mini-towers, whose long shadows cascade down the grass banks.

The pyres blaze and are in due course joined by the sizzle, spark, and boom of fireworks.

Bonfires (and fireworks) on the levees are a holiday tradition. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

With dusk approaching, Southern Louisianians gather near the alien towers. Moving toward these edifices from the road, one thing becomes apparent: they’re so much bigger up close, dwarfing people that mill about and looming over the random Christmas decorations that pepper the levees (for example, a four-foot tall inflatable Santa in his sleigh, which is a small fishing boat, being drawn by his “reindeer”: a set of plastic alligators). When night falls, the sense of the season becomes even more pronounced. There are Christmas lights are strung along the banks, illuminating the ground up the levee banks. And once it is dark enough, with fuel and ignition these structures will become what they are supposed to be: bonfires that both light up the divide between the land and the water and call out for Father Christmas to visit us. The pyres blaze and are in due course joined by the sizzle, spark, and boom of fireworks.

Santa’s helpers snap pictures of a Christmas Eve bonfire. (Courtesy photo)

A Brief Bonfire History

Of the many prominent cultural traditions that made their way to New Orleans from the major European influencers—France, Spain, Germany, the British Isles, as well as other nations on the continent—the lighting of the way for Papa Noel is particularly dazzling. Bonfires on a stretch of the Mississippi River during the Christmas season, which, according to Marcia Gaudet’s 1990 article in the academic journal Southern Folklore, “was probably not a custom practiced by the original Acadian and German settlers but reintroduced by the nineteenth-century French immigrants.” While there is debate over who first began the tradition, Gaudet references an oral history project on the bonfires that includes documentation of a former Jefferson College student, George Bourgeois, who was building bonfires as early as 1884, explaining that “he had known the custom as a student of Marist priests.”

A child watches the holiday spectacle. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Where to See Bonfires on the Levees

As with many traditions in and around the New Orleans area, the lighting of the bonfires and the activities around this event have changed over time, but what remains is a visual marvel. Here are a few places and tips on how to see the bonfires:

  • St. James Parish is the most bountiful in terms of sheer number of bonfire, but the nearby communities of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina also have upwards of a 100 bonfires of their own.
  • It’s possible to find parking within walking distance of the levees where the bonfires are lit, Gray Line Tours provides two excellent options—a four-hour Christmas Eve Bonfire Express, which focuses solely on viewing the bonfires, and the 6.5-hour Christmas Bonfire Adventure Tour, which provides passengers with an extensive tour of the San Francisco Plantation and a hearty Christmas dinner while you’re there. The tours start and end at the Gray Line Lighthouse on Toulouse Street right by the Mississippi River and the steamboat Natchez wharf.
  • If you’re wanting to stay closer to the city but still want to experience the spectacle, the Algiers Economic Development Foundation provides a bonfire across the river on a bend right opposite the French Quarter. The Canal Street-Algiers Point Ferry will take you directly across to a site adjacent to the bonfire. For more information, check out the Algiers Bonfire website. The events begin at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 3, and the lighting usually occurs around 7:00 p.m.
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