12.14.2015

Bonfires on the Mississippi River Levee; a Cajun Christmas Tradition

I have been told that the lighting of the bonfires on Christmas Eve to light Santa's way along the banks of the Mississippi River is the oldest local Christmas tradition in the country.  I am not sure if this is true, but "Laura, a Creole Plantation" has this wonderful picture in its archives:  
When I was a youngster, the origin of the tradition was explained to me in the form of a story:
     Years ago, families living along the River who wanted to trade merchandise or do business, and such, or, those who intended to get on board one of the vessels for travel, and needing the steamships to stop, would signal the Riverboat captains with a bonfire.  Naturally, as Christmas neared, people needed the steamboats to transport presents and Christmas cheer up and down the River, so many signal fires burned every night leading up to the holidays.
    Legend has it that a young child stood on the river bank with his parents, watching as they lit a fire to signal the boats.  The child asked, "Papa, why are there so many fires on the river tonight?"
  The quick thinking parent answered, "Mah, Cher, das so Papa Noel can find his way up da River bringing presents to all the good little children along the way." 
  And, maybe it was kind of true; after all, the steamboats were loaded with Christmas gifts and Holiday travelers.  
    This is the story I was told about how the tradition started and of the legend of Papa Noel finding his way along the River in the dark of night and seeing the bonfires, he knew where to stop so that he could deliver presents to the good little children's homes.
    And thus, the legend of the signal fire was born.  True or not, the tradition has been celebrated for over a hundred years in the little towns of Gramercy and Lutcher, Louisiana, who are right next door to each other.  
   Two years ago, Christmas Eve, Peggy and I crossed the Mississippi Veteran's bridge to take in all the intricate and beautiful bonfire structures atop the levee as folks were putting their finishing touches on them, in preparation for the lighting of the bonfires that night, after dark.  We made two back-to-back videos of our trip, and apologize for the sound on both. But...if you manage to "ride along" with us for the duration, a little more than half an hour, total,  you will get a good idea about the festivities that take place in our 'neck of the woods' on Christmas Eve, as though you were here along with 
 us. You'll need to click the lower right hand square kind of icon...the four corners with the sides of the 'square' missing, to enlarge the screen to get a better view of your 'ride'! (Next time we'll wash the car windows before we leave.)
After this first video, we attended Christmas Eve Mass, then,  
after Mass we began a slow wonderful trip home enjoying the bonfires in all their Christmas Eve glory.  This video does not give justice to this amazing colorful Christmas tradition, but we tried to capture it for you. We were in almost standstill bumper-to-bumper traffic, but we think it's the best way to see it all, not driving down the road in a rush. As you can tell by the diversity of loud music along the ride, the New Orleans area is truly a melting pot of cultures, and all joyously enjoying the celebration of the Season.  
  If you ever find yourself in South Louisiana around Christmas time, you really owe it to yourself to experience this unique Christmas tradition.  Until then, grab a glass of eggnog and come along with us as we ride along River Road, slowly making our way home enjoying this yearly Christmas Eve burning of the bonfires.
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