A Louisiana Christmas Tradition: Bonfires on the Levee
Experience a Louisiana tradition like no other...lighting the way for Papa Noel!
The Great River Road region from New Orleans to Baton Rouge can lay claim to one of the more unusual public December holiday lighting displays you’ll find in Louisiana.
On the earthen levees bordering the Mississippi River, you'll find that local Christmas lights aren’t colored bulbs, but instead dozens of 20-to-30-feet-high flaming pyramids of burning logs - like at the Festival of the Bonfires in Lutcher or the Algiers Bonfire & Concert. While the bonfires are, of course, the star of the show, both festivals offer additional activities like amusement rides, craft markets and great food.
The Christmas bonfires are mostly pyramid-shaped, but some can be more fanciful assemblages paying tribute to each area's culture and heritage—shapes ranging from replica paddlewheel steamships to local critters like alligators or pelicans. Bonfires are built by families, friends and co-workers who visit, cook and mingle between the fires. It’s a local celebration with an environment akin to football tailgating, and the practice has continued for generations.
You may wonder how this unique tradition began. However, the origin of the bonfire tradition is unclear. They may date back to French Marist priests who came to Louisiana just after the Civil War to teach at local cottages and adapted an ancient tradition that’s found throughout western Europe. Oral histories dating to the 1880s include mention of these fires. In the decades since, the annual event has become more popular with locals and tourists alike — just drive down state highways 18 and 44 on Christmas Eve, and you’ll notice long lines of spectators’ cars parked at the foot of the levees.
The young and the young at heart continue the bonfire tradition today. Ask a local about why bonfires are made and celebrated here, and the most common response is that the fires illuminate the way for Santa Claus’ (or Papa Noel, as the Cajuns say) flying his sleigh and eight reindeer to find the homes of local good girls and boys.
The best viewing is by car along the east- and west-bank River Roads and by walking along the levees. Bonfire parties are not necessarily open to the public, but onlookers will likely be offered kind words and holiday greetings should they mingle on foot.
Want to get into the bonfire-building spirit? Learn how to build your own Louisiana bonfire. You can explore more Christmas traditions in Louisiana along the Holiday Trail of Lights in north Louisiana and Cajun Christmas traditions.