Christmas Eve Bonfires Light Up Louisiana Levees

December 21, 2006

Santa Claus and churchgoers traveling to midnight mass should have no trouble finding their way along Louisiana's levees this Christmas Eve.

More than a hundred towering bonfires will light the way, as they have every year for at least a century.

The bonfires are mostly 20-foot-tall (6-meter-tall) pyramids made of willow trees and cane reed.

Local families build the structures and simultaneously light them at 7 p.m. sharp, said Rhonda Lee, president of the bonfire festival in St. James Parish, a country near New Orleans, Louisiana (Louisiana photos, maps, profiles, more).

"It really turns out the community and gathers everyone," she said.

The fires burn along the levees in the parishes of St. John the Baptist, St. James, and Ascension.

In addition to gathering family and communities, they've become a popular tourist attraction.

"We have people from all over the world that come see the bonfires," Lee said.

Bonfire History

Marcia Gaudet is an English professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She said the lighting of bonfires on Christmas Eve is a European tradition that the French brought to Louisiana at the end of the 19th century, perhaps earlier.

"The Cajuns didn't have bonfires in Nova Scotia," she said, refering to the French-speaking people who migrated to Louisiana from the eastern seaboard of Canada in the mid- to late-18th century.

(Related: "Cajun Chicken Chases Spice Up Rural Mardi Gras" [February 7, 2005].)

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