The area of Louisiana now known as the River Parishes hosts a Festival of the Bonfires each year to light the way for Papa Noël,” the Cajun Santa Claus. This tradition began sometime in the 1800’s by the settlers in the area, who at the time, may have used the bonfires to light the way to Midnight Mass or guide ships along the Mississippi River. While the origin is not quite known, it still carries on today, representing the pleasures of gathering together as a community and celebrating Christmas.
Many residents of the River Parishes have celebrated this tradition for decades, and continue their ancestor’s legacy by building their own triangular tower of wood to burn for the festivities. Some residents dedicate their structures to family members, or just build them in honor of the season. These Christmas Eve bonfires are commonly found in St. James Parish, about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans. As many as 100 or more bonfires are erected in the adjoining communities of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. More may be scattered in other locations in St. James and neighboring river parishes.
Dozens of these triangular wood structures will line the levee, with festivals beginning December 9-11th until the long-awaited Christmas Eve lighting. As the tradition has grown over the years, so have the designs of wooden structures to be burned. Drawing in a large crowd annually are the creations of the group Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires. This year, their wooden masterpiece is an alligator gar, intricately built with hundreds of wooden scales and sharp wooden teeth.
I took a drive out to St. James Parish this year to see the wood structures in person for the first time. It was amazing to see the intricate carvings of the John Deere tractor and the 35′ alligator that are standing on the levee between the pyramids of wood structures that will burn to celebrate the tradition.
I spoke with one of the alligator builders, Sonny Kilburn, who was happy to share the history of the sculptures and how his family had been building some of the most intricate designs for generations. Over the years his friends and family have built guitars, the Louisiana flag, Saints helmets and many other pieces of wooden art that pays tribute to Louisiana culture. I asked if he was upset to see the alligator burn and he said “No, every year we need a blank canvas.”
Kilburn told us that it took about three weeks to construct the alligator this year with wood gathered from cutting down trees from nearby woods along the levee and river.
You can stay up to date on the Festival of Bonfires on their Facebook page Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires.
Due to forecasted rain on Christmas Eve Day, the Festival of the Bonfires final lighting ceremony has been moved to Saturday, December 23rd at 7 pm. The area will be packed with visitors and residents alike, so make sure to plan ahead on the best ways to get the perfect view. Booking a tour with a local company or scouting out the special event parking lots close by are your best bets at getting to enjoy the festivities of the Festival of the Bonfires.