[St. James Parish, LA] — Ah, the unmistakable scents of Christmas: peppermint candy canes, pine needles, gingerbread, and kerosene. Wait…what?

For a Louisianan, that may not be so far-fetched. Every Christmas Eve, along the levees up and down the Mississippi River, a holiday tradition thrives. At 7:00 pm, the riverbanks blaze with bonfires; 20-foot tall log towers burn and fireworks crackle to welcome the holiday. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, groups and families erect the towers, some quite elaborate, all destined to go up in a blaze of glory. The logs are soaked in kerosene or lighter fluid to aid combustion; that accounts for the strong scent that permeates the pre-Christmas air.

Explanations for the tradition’s Louisiana beginnings vary. The River Parishes — St. James, St. John the Baptist, and St. Charles — were settled in the early 1700s by French and German immigrants, who brought with them the European traditions of bonfires during summer and winter solstices. Few records exist of 1700s bonfires, however, but by the mid-1800s the tradition had hit full stride. According to Cajun lore, the fires were lit to guide Papa Noel on his appointed rounds, or to light the way to Midnight Mass.

As a recent transplant to New Orleans, I was completely blown away by this year’s bonfires. My wife and I arrived in Gramercy, about 45 minutes west of New Orleans, before dark and strolled the riverbank, admiring the handiwork and watching the last-minute preparations. One of the more impressive structures was built in the form of a giant 4X4 — maybe this is a Cajun Cadillac?

As the skies darkened and  the 7:00 o’clock hour approached, crowds and anticipation grew. At the hour’s arrival, the wooden kerosene-drenched pyres, many festooned with firecrackers, erupted in flames and loud crackling sounds filled the air — a  cacophonous combination of smoke, flame, and noise. For at least a solid hour, aerial fireworks exploded in the sky, providing a thrilling backdrop to the flaming pyres. All I can say is “Wow.” And “Wow” again.

 

Thanks to the following online source I used for background information:

http://www.stjamesparish.com/local/localinfo/BONFIRES/Bonfir1.htm

 

 

About Glen Abbott
Glen Abbott is a Florida-based travel writer & photographer specializing in motorcycle touring and travel. He is regular contributor to Harley-Davidson's HOG Magazine, and his travel features appear regularly in motorcycle magazines and other publications.

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12 Comments
  1. The World of Deej

    January 6, 2012

    Somehow, I’m not the least surprised this is how they celebrate Christmas in Louisiana. They definitely know how to celebrate!
    The World of Deej recently posted..Deej’s Picture of the Week

  2. Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    January 6, 2012

    I never heard about this tradition before. Thanks for sharing. It seems like it be quite incredible to watch. Might have to spend a Christmas in NOLA in the future!
    Bobbi Lee Hitchon recently posted..Four SE Asian scams to watch

  3. Brooke vs. the World

    January 6, 2012

    This looks like a cool experience — love the shots with fire and fireworks! 🙂
    Brooke vs. the World recently posted..Getting Out of Istanbul Alive

  4. bonfires and fireworks seem like a great way of spending Christmas
    Gladys | WanderingTandem.com recently posted..Feeling the Christmas Spirit, Finally!

  5. adventureswithben

    December 27, 2011

    Looks like you’re adjusting to NOLA just fine.
    adventureswithben recently posted..2011 Winners and Losers in Travel & Tourism

    • Travelin' Gringo

      December 27, 2011

      I don’t know, Ben. I’ll have to go out and have some more NOLA food and drink, and I’ll let you know 🙂

  6. inka

    December 25, 2011

    I can’t stop looking at these night pictures. Magnificent.
    inka recently posted..In time for the Sherlock Holmes movie – 221B Baker Street/London

    • Travelin' Gringo

      December 25, 2011

      Thanks, Inka, the event was really spectacular; I’d never seen anything like it before!

  7. Jan Ross

    December 25, 2011

    I have never heard of this – how interesting!!
    Jan Ross recently posted..Merry Christmas from Wanderlustwonder!

    • Randy Metge

      December 25, 2011

      Hello i am one of the builders of the 4×4 it is Grave Digger the monster truck. Built by myself and the Gramercy fire department.Each year we pick a theme as a group and build something special for the viewers to see.Everyone is welcome and we love to have more people out to see it every year.If your intrested in any details on them and would like to come see them next year you are welcome to email me. And ill answer any of your questions.
      Thanks again from all of us who made it out to it this year, and have a Merry Christmas!

      • Travelin' Gringo

        December 25, 2011

        Hi Randy, that is really very cool. It would be great to take some pictures next year when you’re building it, I’ll email you then. Thanks!

    • Travelin' Gringo

      December 25, 2011

      Thanks, Jan, I’d never heard of it either until I moved here. It’s really incredible, the pictures don’t do it justice.

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