While there is no shortage of Christmas events in New Orleans, one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions is a Cajun one that takes places on Christmas Eve a little over an hour up river. The Christmas Bonfires in Grammercy and Lutcher have been lighting the way for Santa Claus (or Papa Noel, as the Cajuns call him) for generations, and, in addition to the festival celebrating the event in mid-December, the experience is one that reminds us just how close we are – geographically and culturally – to Cajun culture and how those roots are still with us.
The road between Lutcher and Grammercy (and the swatch of river between them) is the center of the bonfires. Traditionally, the fires stand out 20 feet tall and are arranged with logs placed Jenga-style into the shape of pyramids. Builders then stuff them with moss and fireworks as kindling. The effect is a dazzling light show reflected on the waters of the Mississippi River as families with festively decorated homes along the way have parties and children buzz with excitement as Santa’s arrival feels imminent.
Historically, the fires were lit to illuminate the path to mass, but the tradition evolved to including the story of lighting Papa Noel’s way down the river. Most of the people building the bonfires are families that have done it for years, and the process is highly regulated with building restrictions and permits submitted well in advance. Local firefighters are on duty, and the local houses also set up tents along the river and sell jambalaya (which sells out quickly) and other snacks.
While the fires are lit at 7 p.m. and continue until they burn out, the event before and after is almost like a tailgate with bonfire builders lighting fireworks. Families that don’t live nearby picnic, bringing chairs, food, beverages and a few pieces of cardboard for kids to sled down the levee. If travelling with children, be prepared to walk the levee (and maybe leave the stroller at home) since kids will want to examine the fires close-up. In years past, participants have experimented with non-traditional bonfire bases, including Rudolph and a train.
If travelling from New Orleans, leaving around 3:30 to 4 p.m. is a good idea as is travelling Airline Highway to arrive just outside the residential areas along the river and walking in. When you leave the area, it’s worth driving over the Veterans Memorial Bridge to get a bird’s eye view of the fires along the levee. You can also drive along River Road or even take a Gray Line Bus tour of the event. Know, however, that traffic is always heavy, and you’ll likely be limited to only seeing the fires from your car.
If making the trip isn’t on your agenda this holiday season, the community hosts a Festival of the Bonfires December 13-15. Events include music acts, carnival rides and children’s events, but you will only see one bonfire lit each night during the weekend to give folks and idea of what the process entails and give a general idea of the main event to come.
However, if you have time on what for many is a busy Christmas Eve evening, the Christmas bonfires on the levee are a great and low-key way to round out your day and gear up for the next morning. Meanwhile, what better way to celebrate the holiday than by giving Santa a Cajun welcome, enjoying some jambalaya and hot cocoa and getting one more reminder of why even Christmas is something we do just a little bit differently in South Louisiana.
Just the Facts…
Christmas Bonfires on the Levee Fires are lit at 7 p.m. and populate the levee along Grammercy, Lutcher and Paulina.
Parking is available in lots along Highway 641 and, from there, you’ll have to walk 3-4 blocks to the levee.
Festival of the Bonfires
For comprehensive information on the festival and the Christmas bonfires: FestivalOfTheBonfires.org