Bonfires on the Levee for Papa Noel

The locals of St. James Parish, Louisiana have their own unique, long-standing tradition of lighting teepee style pyres on fire for Christmas Eve, some of which are packed with fireworks as kindling.

Throughout the entire month of December, local families work together to build the pyres. The pyres themselves traditionally take pyramid or teepee shapes, but over the course of the years have varied to reflect popular cultural or political themes of significance for that year. Recent examples include gigantic log replicas of New Orleans Saints helmets, Budweiser bottles, trains, and a particularly poignant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” figure in 2014 to commemorate Michael Brown and the tragedy in Ferguson.

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The Festival of the Bonfires lasts through the entire month of the December, during which time one pyre is lit nightly, culminating in the final, simultaneous combustion of all remaining towers on Christmas Eve. Along the miles of levee, the pyres burn with intensity and explode into brilliant colors. By the river, even more fireworks are lit, creating a backdrop that paints the sky in bright, sparkling colors as the families lining both banks walk past the blazes in celebration of Christmas’ impending arrival.

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The history of these fires is unclear, and attempts to trace its roots resemble history writing itself in reverse. Take, for example, today’s most popular explanation involving fires lighting the way for Papa Noel (Cajun Santa Claus) on his alligator-drawn pirogue. The area is populated by those of German and French descent and it is believed the fiery tradition traveled with the settlers, whose pre-Christian holiday traditions include setting bonfires and detonating fireworks to either guide or ward-off pagan spirits. The earliest documents show these pyres in a neighboring parish along the batture, however, taking place during the summer Feast of St. John the Baptist at 1865, nearly a century after the Cajun settlers claimed the land (which is not to say they didn’t take place earlier, undocumented).

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It’s historians’ best guess that over time, the Festival of the Bonfires migrated to the Christmas holiday at a time, or were reintroduced to the area at the turn of the 20th century. The insertion of their purpose to “light the way for Papa Noel” and his alligator sleigh simply made for a fantastic story. And, Lord knows, if there’s any time to celebrate an enchanting, debatably true origin story, it’s Christmastime.

Originally written for AtlasObscura.com. 2015.