Christmas Bonfires on the Levee: Build A Louisiana-Inspired Tradition

How to Build a Louisiana Bonfire diagram

Start your own bonfire tradition with the step by step instructions below.

You might remember Truvy saying, “I don't want to miss the Nativity made entirely out of sparklers!”

In “Steel Magnolias,” a 1980s cult classic filmed in Louisiana, Dolly Parton’s character makes known her favorite Christmas tradition. Louisiana offers them in plenty: It's easy to find festivities, decorations and tables full of festive cheer throughout the state.

Where are Christmas Bonfires in Louisiana?

No offense to Truvy's sparklers, but we imagine that they can’t hold a candle to the Christmas Eve bonfires lit on the Mississippi River levee. We’ve discussed the beauty and generational history of Louisiana bonfires before: Families, friends and coworkers build them and spend the evening talking and cooking in their lovely glow. The best Christmas Eve view is by car in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina. The Festivals of the Bonfires takes place in Lutcher and includes a gumbo cook-off, live music and the famous burning structures. Find more celebrations in:

  • Baton Rouge
  • New Orleans
  • Algiers
  • St. James Parish
  • Lutcher
  • Gramercy 
  • Paulina

History of Louisiana's Bonfires

Early French and German residents brought the custom to Louisiana and lit the bonfires to either guide ships along the river, provide a pathway for holiday church goers or light the way for ‘Papa Noel,’ the Cajun Santa Claus. Whatever the purpose, the tradition is carried on each year, building the bonfires in a cone or pyramid shape on the levee in a method rooted in tradition and passed from generation to generation. If you’re wondering how they construct these 15-foot-tall structures, see below for instructions.

A Louisiana Bonfire “Recipe”: How to Construct a BonfireLouisiana Bonfire construction diagram

  1. The wood most often used comes from trash trees whose gathering helps clear out overgrowth. Hardwoods are avoided. Willow trees and other fast growing, dry varieties work best and adding cane reed gives it a festive pop and sparkle while burning.
  2. Traditional, pyramid-shaped bonfires have four, six or eight sides. Six is the most traditional, resulting in a hexagon-shaped base.
  3. Ground the center pole at least 2 feet deep and so that it stands no higher than 15 feet, per regulations. Prepare a circular piece of plywood, cutting a half-moon shape into the circle’s diameter for each of the side poles, evenly spaced around the circle.
  4. Add your side poles, grounding them securely, each at the same distance to the center pole and leaning in. The further away from the center pole, the longer logs you will need. Ensure the base area does not cover more 12x12 feet. Wire the side poles to the plywood using 16-pound wire or larger.
  5. To begin boxing your bonfire, form the first side by laying a log inside two of the side posts. Do the same for every other side, leaving an open space in-between. For a six-sided bonfire, you’ll lay three logs for the first layer.
  6. Place logs for the remaining sides in the same fashion, topping the first layer at the corners at the inside of the bonfire.
  7. Repeat the process, using smaller logs as you move up the bonfire to create the iconic pyramid shape.
  8. As the structure gains height, fill the center with leftover pieces of wood, smaller logs, branches and cane reed, leaving heavier pieces on the bottom. This is called the gut.
  9. Diesel fuel can be added to the gut to aid in the burning, and firecrackers and sparklers can add to the spectacle.
  10. Very carefully light your bonfire and enjoy its festive glow with your loved ones. Papa Noel is on his way!

Building bonfires along the Mississippi River requires permits purchased through The Ponchartrain Levee District to ensure the builders' and spectators’ safety.  

Learn more about the holiday tradition of bonfires on the levee.