bonfires on the levees
Searching for the truth
Not that we would ever deny the existence of Papa Noel –– or, as the Americans say, Santa Claus –– but it is time to put to rest a tale that circulates every year about Papa and the annual Christmas Eve bonfires. The burning pyres line the levees of the river parishes above New Orleans, primarily St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist and Ascension, 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, thefires originated at the behest of Cajun children who wanted to light the way for Papa Noel to find his way to their turf.
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 bonfires in ancient Germany and the Celtic lands –– but not in Nova Scotia whence 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 the former.) The date also marks the beginning of winter. For societies that relied on farming and hunting, winter was the down time from working but a great excuse to party. Different cultures 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 German settlers in Louisiana shed light on Old World traditions more than they light 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 its 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.
As for Papa Noel finding his way, here’s a tip: GPS devices are becoming less expensive.