Bonfires on the Levee – The True Story
Because of COVID, Papa Noel will be on his own this Christmas Eve as he approaches Louisiana’s river parishes. We all know that the reason folks in St. James, and other river parishes, build bonfires on the night before Christmas goes back to an old tradition of Cajun kids creating the pyres so that Papa Noel can find his way to their neighborhood. (In recent years, Noel’s task has gotten a bit more difficult as the fires’ glow has been overcome by the light from the chemical refineries.)
Still, the legend persists. It is a nice story with just the one drawback… it is not true. Not the part about Papa Noel coming to Louisiana, but the part about the Cajun kids and their pyromania.
More recent research has shown that the fires were influenced by ancient European winter solstice traditions, for which it was a custom to build bonfires around Dec. 21 and 22, the time of the year when the days are shortest. There was settlement along the river by Germans (hence the name German Coast mentioned below) but there were also French settlers, not Cajuns but those who settled later, mostly after the Civil War.
A year 2000 article in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany by William Fagan reported this about the custom’s true origin based on findings by researcher Marcia Gaudet:
The bonfire tradition was probably not a custom practiced by the original Acadian and German settlers but reintroduced by the nineteenth century French immigrants. This could explain why the custom is not observed by the Cajuns on the bayous or the prairies of southwest Louisiana or, in general, by people on the first German Coast.
In effect, the custom was established by a group seldom acknowledged in Louisiana history, latter day non-Cajun French immigrants. Consensus by researchers seems to be that the custom began to flourish around the 1900s. Gaudet adds:
Father Louis Poche, a Jesuit priest and native of Saint James parish, remembers hearing from his family that the bonfire custom in Louisiana was started in Saint James by the French Marist priests who came to Louisiana after the Civil War to teach at Jefferson College, then a Catholic college in Convent, Louisiana.
That Catholic college is today better known as Manresa, a popular retreat destination for men. For those retreatants who are in quiet contemplation they might offer a prayer of thanks for the French Marists who gave the bonfire tradition its jumpstart.
So, what of the idea about the Cajun kids and Papa Noel? No one knows for sure how that got started, although one theory does point to a reporter at a Baton Rouge television station who once attached that yarn to his coverage of the bonfires, which through the years have become a huge media event. That story is the type of legend that the media can jump on especially when there is no one to argue against it. On matters of folk customs, fantasies get an easy pass.
Therefore, kids who are concerned that Noel will not find his way to the river parishes this year should be heartened. We have heard, on reliable authority, that Papa Noel now has a GPS system.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.