Dec 19, 201608:05 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Bonfires On The Levees
Searching for the truth
Not that we would ever deny the existence of Papa Noel, but it is time to put to rest a tale that circulates every year about Papa and the annual Christmas Eve bonfires. Burning pyres line the levees of the river parishes above New Orleans – primarily St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Ascension parishes with the town of Lutcher being the epicenter.
As the legend goes, and each year it is perpetuated by news reporters looking for seasonal stories, the fires originated at the behest of Cajun children who wanted to light the way for Papa Noel to find the way to their turf.
(One theory is that a Baton Rouge TV reporter perpetuated the Papa Noel story, because it presents a colorful mental image and took hold, especially in the vacuum of any other explanation. Already this season I have heard the legend reported twice, once by a Baton Rouge TV station.)
Flaws to the story are numerous, beginning with the fact that the early settlers of the river parishes were more German than Cajun. That’s significant because there was a tradition of winter bon fires in ancient Germany and the Celtic lands, but not in Nova Scotia from which the Acadians came.
Throughout pre-Christian Europe bonfires were traditionally built at the time of the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year and hence the longest night. (The solstice usually occurs on Dec. 21 or Dec. 22. This year it's the former.) The date also marks the beginning of winter. For cultures that relied on farming and hunting, winter was the down time from working but a great excuse to party. Different peoples developed different festivals at that time of the year.
As Christianity took hold it put its own spin on existing rituals. Over time, the solstice celebration would be pushed back a few days and become part of Christmas.
Bonfires built by early Germans settlers in Louisiana shed light on Old World traditions more than lighting the way for airborne visitors bearing gifts.
Over time, the cultures of the river parishes would blend and the significance of the fires would take on their own meaning, though many years after the fact.
To me the truth is better than the fiction because it speaks of the universal nature of the celebration, rather than giving the credit to Cajun kids who probably should not have been playing with matches anyway.
Papa Noel seems to have no problem locating good little kids, fire free, throughout the rest of the world. Nevertheless, as he heads to Louisiana’s river parishes here’s a tip: GPS systems are becoming less expensive.