BONFIRES ON THE LEVEE:
A CHRISTMAS EVE TRADITION ALONG THE RIVER ROAD
By Emily Chenet Guidry
Many pages would be required to relate the stories concerning Christmas Eve levee bonfires in St. James Parish, Louisiana. This is merely an attempt to bring to the reader some history of a custom which has experienced a phenomenal growth in recent decades.
Once few in number, the local bonfires were originally a neighborhood or family oriented activity. Now they line the levee for miles and attract thousands of visitors. Neighboring Ascension and St. John the Baptist Parishes have a scattering of Christmas Eve bonfires, but by far the greatest concentration is in the St. James Parish communities of Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina.
The event has had local and national television coverage and has been featured in metropolitan newspapers and magazines. The pre-Christmas open house of the Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department and the Lutcher Festival of the Bonfires draw many people to the area in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve.
Through the years, there has been and intermingling of facts and fantasies concerning the origin of the bonfire tradition. In an effort to determine the history and development of this unique practice, a part of our research has included personal interviews with some of the oldest living residents of the area. A few of their recollections are included here.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a bonfire as “a large fire built in the open air”, a word derived from the Middle English bone fire—a fire of bones. More to our purpose, other sources define a bonfire as “a festive fire” or a “contribution fire” that is, a fire to which everyone in the neighborhood contributes a certain portion of material.
There is little doubt that the local bonfires along the River Road meet the definition of a “contribution fire”. In the weeks following Thanksgiving, the levee is alive with activity as scores of young people work together, contributing labor and material to create the masterpieces that will be ignited on Christmas Eve.
Weather permitting, fire chiefs give the signal at 7 o’clock, and St. James Parish residents simultaneously set a torch to their bonfires, re-enacting a fire ritual long-performed by their early European ancestors.
BONFIRES IN EUROPE
In observations made centuries apart, several European writers concluded that bonfires still constructed in certain parts of Europe are the outgrowth of an ancient Celtic custom of building large ceremonial fires to honor the sun.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, the British Isles and Gaul (France) were inhabited by the Celts whose powerful religious leaders, the Druids, had the sun as their principle object of worship. To pay homage to this great source of power and light, fires were built at the time of the winter and summer solstices. The Celts were dependent on farming for their tribal livelihood and believed that the fires would hasten the return of Spring and prolong the days of Summer.
Following the birth of Christ, Druid beliefs were gradually supplanted by Christianity, and the fire ritual took on religious meanings.
The ancient summer solstice celebrations spread throughout many nations, and was moved to June 23rd, the vigil or eve of the anniversary of the birth of St. John the Baptist who, according to legend, represented a “lantern of light” to the people. The festive fires were burned in his honor.
The winter solstice fires, fewer in number, became the Christmas Eve bonfires still burned in certain parts of France. The Christmas Yule log, known in France as “La Buche de Noel”, is also believed to be a remnant of the ancient winter solstice fires.
The summer fires of St. John the Baptist were by far the most spectacular and joyful of the festive fires. Wars, plagues and the passage of time did not stop the people from building their Fires of Joy. The custom endures until this day, especially in France where the summer fires are known as “Le Feu de la St.-Jean D’Ete”, and in Germany, from the Rhine River through Bavaria.
In June 1988, just prior to the Feast of St. John the Baptist, members of a local historical and genealogical group visited the region of Alsace, the homeland of many of their ancestors. Throughout the French countryside they saw countless bonfires which, although richer in symbolism, were almost identical I size and regular pyramidal construction to St. James Parish’s own traditional Christmas Eve levee bonfires.
On the German side of the Rhine, similar summer bonfires (sonnenwende) are constructed on hill tops and the bonfire lighting is accompanied by the rolling of a wheel down the hillside. In earlier times, the wheel was wrapped in twisted straw, ignited, and rolled down the hill, signifying that the sun, then at the highest place in the sky, was beginning to descend.
BONFIRES IN ST. JAMES PARISH
The area of Louisiana now known as the River Parishes (St. James, St. John and St. Charles) was settled in the early 1700’s by the Old World French and Germans. These early colonists brought with them the knowledge of both summer and winter bonfire customs and traditions which they had known in their native lands. By sharing this knowledge with their many descendants, they provided the inspiration for a practice which has evolved into one giant celebration—the present-day Christmas Eve levee bonfires!
Of necessity, survival and the establishment of a new colony were the principal concerns of the French and Germans who first settled along the lover Mississippi River. These early colonists undoubtedly built a few celebration fires, but early history of the area has failed to record any information about this. As a result, as the bonfire custom increased in recent generations, so has speculation about the origin and development of tradition.
For example, one of the more recent and increasingly popular explanations is that the bonfires were a “Cajun tradition”, first used to light the way for “Papa Noel”, the Cajun version of Santa Claus. This charming version, although improbable, has been depicted annually in front of a Paulina, LA business establishment where a levee scene shows “Papa Noel” with his pirogue drawn by alligators named Gaston, Ninette, “Te-Boy”, Celeste, Suzette, etc.
Some Acadian exiles from Nova Scotia settled in St. James Parish as early as 1765, with many more arriving in the 1780’s, but “Papa Noel” was not yet known to them. It was on New Year’s Eve that the little French children received their gifts.
In South Louisiana of old, Christmas was a strictly religious observance, and it was New Year’s Eve that was marked by the exchange of gifts and the “reveille” to see the old year out and to greet the new year. In Cabanocey: The History, Customs and Folklore of St. James Parish, published in 1957, the author, Lillian Bourgeois, tells of this custom of celebrating New Year’s Eve with a gathering of family and friends who enjoyed a gumbo supper, eggnog and the burning of huge cone-shaped bonfires on the batture, the land area between the base of the levee and the water’s edge. With the passage of time, these activities gradually moved to Christmas Eve.
Some have also offered the theory that the bonfires served as navigational signals to guide ships along the river, or were used to light the way for the faithful to attend Midnight Mass.
Through 1865 letters still in existence, it has been established that the summer feast of St. John the Baptist was then celebrated in neighboring St. John Parish (known as the Second German Coast) with the lighting of fires and the homecoming of relatives who lived away.
A recently discovered 1871 picture shows members of the Lacoul and de Lobel Mahy families gathered around two bonfires built on the levee in front of Laura Plantation in West St. James Parish. The men pictured are wearing coats and the women are wearing hats, but the time of the year is not specified.
In 1989, I participated in a local study on the development of Christmas Eve bonfires in the River Parishes. Many older residents or their descendants were interviewed to learn their knowledge of the history and traditions of the custom.
In a personal interview with H. D’Aquin Bourgeois, son of George Bourgeois, a St. James Parish native born in 1855, I learned that the elder Mr. Bourgeois, an enterprising merchant, had built Christmas Eve levee bonfires in front of his New Camellia Plantation store as early as 1884. Throughout the year, he collected wooden shipping crates, some as large as 3’x5’, in which merchandise for his store had been shipped. These crates, along with old lumber, were used to construct a Christmas Eve bonfire for the pleasure of local residents and the children of his store patrons. The blazing bonfire, the sound of exploding fireworks provided by the store owner, and the gleeful sounds of the children attracted riverboat crews who interrupted their travel to join in the celebration. Bonfires at this location continued until 1930, and in later years grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original builder resumed bonfire construction at the same site.
Another 1989 interview with Mrs. Hilda Gabb Cambre, a St. James native born in 1901, revealed that she had known Christmas Eve yard bonfires during childhood days spent on her grandfather’s Magnolia Plantation in West St. James Parish. The bonfires, built with any type wood available, were part of a festive occasion where lanterns were placed in the trees and eggnog was served to guests. In later Christmas seasons, kerosene-soaked cotton balls were lit and rolled down the levee. (Could this be a counterpart of the German wheel-rolling down the hillside?)
The use of kerosene-soaked cotton balls was also related by Mrs. Cecile Dornier Jacob, an East St. James Parish resident who shared bonfire stories told by her grandmother, Mrs. Florian Dicharry, born in 1851. These Christmas Eve bonfires, built in the pasture near the family home, were in later years topped by a flag to signify completion of the structure. In a Christmas Eve game, the young boys formed teams trying to hit the flag with kerosene soaked cotton bolls wrapped around a wire frame.
Yet another St. James Parish native, Mrs. L. Boneno, born in 1893, told her family that as a child she stood on the levee of the West Bank of the river and watched as the sky was illuminated by the burning of a levee bonfire on the opposite side of the river. It was her opinion that the large bonfires, although few in number, were built by the more affluent families, probably those of plantation owners.
While these sample interviews establish the existence of levee bonfires well before the turn of the century, an equal number of people of the same age group had no knowledge of Christmas Eve bonfires in the area.
The difference in recalling the event is understandable when we consider that the rural families lived far apart, had transportation limited to the horse and buggy, rarely left home at night, and had no newspaper coverage of the event!
In increasing numbers, people born in the decade of World War I, in the 1920’s and 1930’s recalled small yard Christmas Eve fires and told of the gradual resurgence of the larger levee bonfires. Vividly recalled by some were the levee bonfires built by the families on Welham Plantation, first in the pasture and later at the base of the levee. Initially, the Welham fires consisted solely of an anchored center pole surrounded by recently cut cane reeds held in place by an encircling wire. Later generations of the family added scrap wood and rubber tires and moved the location to the base of the levee.
During World War II, bonfire building ceased, but was resumed with increased enthusiasm in the post-war years. Slowly, the structures became more standardized in size, shape and materials used. Willow, growing in profusion along the river bank, became the wood of choice.
Equipped with axes, hatchets and hand saws, boys of the “bonfire clubs” cut trees, stripped them of their branches and hauled them, one by one, to the chosen levee-top site. The bonfire’s center pole was selected, placed upright and secured in a hole several feet in depth. Depending on the shape intended, the center pole was supported by four or more side poles, interspaced with logs cut to a desired size. Discarded rubber tires, collected throughout the year, encircled the center pole, or were used along with other combustible materials in the bonfire’s center. When burning, the tires created a thick, dark smoke and multi-colored flames. A few days before the scheduled burning, the boys walked miles to secure freshly cut cane reeds to place within and around the structure. While burning, the cane reeds emitted a popping, fire cracker-like sound.
In the mid-1950’s, a residential subdivision developed along the River Road between the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy. With more young families living near the levee, the bonfire building custom exploded!
Chainsaws replaced axes, hatchets and hand-saws. Logs and cane reeds were transported to the levee top by pick-up trucks rather than muscle power and determination. The structures retained the traditional tepee shape, but with precisely cut logs became artistic masterpieces. Non-traditional bonfires gradually emerged in the shape of plantation homes, riverboats, etc. —– structures of such beauty that it seemed a shame to burn them.
With increased press coverage of the levee bonfires, the once-quiet River Road soon became the site of a giant party. Thousands of on-lookers arrived in private automobiles, motor homes, riverboats and tour buses to join local revelers in the Christmas Eve celebration.
As the number of bonfires and spectators grew, more stringent regulations about materials and construction became necessary. Environmental concerns about pollution resulted in a ban on the burning of rubber tires or toxic materials. The swamp replaced the river bank as the source of willow logs. Safety concerns created construction size and spacing limitations which were spelled out in building permits.
Little did early French and German settlers of this area dream that the bonfire legacy left to their descendants would one day make Christmas Eve a VERY special time in the River Parishes. Had they known, they would have nodded in approval as they said “Joyeux Noel” and “Frohliche Weihnacten”—– MERRY CHRISTMAS!