Bonfires on the Levee: A Family Tradition

One of the great things about being married to someone whose family is from a different part of the country is, you get the chance to merge your families traditions together. One that we can’t do -but I wish we could go see- is the “Bonfires on the Levee”. These bonfires pop up all along the Mississippi as Christmas draws near, and have been an integral part of Christmas in Louisiana for at least the past 200 years. At Oak Alley (see painting above) the coming of Christmas is celebrated with a big party. For a modest fee, you can partake in such delicacies as Fried Bacon Wrapped Shrimp,Fried Crawfish Boulettes, Grilled Bacon Wrapped Duck tossed in BBQ Sauce, Spinach Madeline, Seafood Au Gratin, Spicy Crawfish Dip, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, Shrimp & Andouille Pasta and Grilled Crawfish Cakes with Jack Daniels Corn Sauce.

Not to be overlooked, the deserts run along the lines of Petite Sweets”, such as Pecan Pralines,Christmas Tea Cookies, Miniature Pecan Pies, Chocolate Pecan Fudge, Chocolate Fondue with Fresh Fruit & Pound Cake, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, & Beignets. But I digress; why do they have the bonfires? If I may be allowed to quote from the Louisiana Folk Life websites article entitled  Bonfires on the Levee: A Family Tradition in Ascension Parish

“In France Christmas celebrations have been traditionally associated with bonfires, as well as with burning yule logs similar to those of England.Van Gennep (1943-1958:I,part 7,3032ff) notes a great variety of fires, fireballs, and torches used in conjunction with the Christmas season in a number of French regions, which have an assortment of names for these customs. In south Louisiana, particularly in and around Lutcher, Vacherie and Gramercy, Christmas bonfires on the Mississippi River levees have become prominent in recent years as they have been brought to the public eye. Newspapers and television stations have increased coverage each year until these bonfires have turned into a competition between their makers, each attempting to design and build the most original and the biggest. As Christmas approaches, large numbers of people become curious about the themes of the upcoming seasonal productions. Will it be bonfires in the shapes of pirate ships? Log cabins? Trains? What designs will be constructed and burned this year? So many people come from all over to watch these spectacles that policemen are required to direct traffic and maintain order. It might be thought, given the prevalence of the custom in France, the Louisiana practice came with early French settlers, but Gaudet (1984:11; see pp. 9-13 for her discussion of the bonfires; for her more recent comments, including some new information see Gaudet 1990) indicates that according to her informants the bonfires were not established before the 1880s and were introduced then by Maraist priests in Convent, who were familiar with the use of fire in seasonal celebrations in France. The fires were traditionally built in the shape of crude pyramids or “tepees”, and it is only in recent years that there have been innovations in form. Wherever and however this tradition began, it has become highly popular.”

Actually, the bonfires are thought to have initially been a way to light the way to local churches, so parishioners would be able to safely find their way to and from Midnight Mass. Still others claim they were started some 200 years ago to help Papa Noël, a.k.a. Santa Claus, find his way to southeast Louisiana. It is largely thought that the German immigrants to the area brought this tradition with them, but it has also thought to be the work of the Acadians (my wifes people), or “Cajuns” as they are usually called. Considering their Roman cathiolic heritage, this certainly seems like the facts are leaning towards the Cajun theory.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter who brought it over with them, it is still a nice tradition I thought I’d share with you guys.


~ by keystone28 on 12/21/2009.

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