Christmas Bonfires In South Louisiana: Tradition And Innovation
By Marcia Gaudet
Christmas season bonfires, once popular in France, Germany, other parts of Europe, and the British Isles, continue to be part of the Christmas celebration in a small area along the Mississippi River in south Louisiana. After dark on Christmas Eve, huge bonfires blaze along the levees of the river in the parishes of St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Ascension. (This area includes about 30 miles of levee on each side of the river and is located about midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.) These bonfires, built of logs, cane reed, and bamboo, create the effect of spectacular fireworks. Large crowds of family, friends, and visitors gather on the levee to watch the bonfires, sometimes built as close as 20 to a mile of levee. A popular explanation for the bonfires is "to light the way for Papa Noel ."
Though this holiday custom is now practiced by people of Acadian French and German descent, it 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 (St. Charles Parish). The custom was probably established in St. James Parish between 1880 and 1900. Father Louis Poche, a Jesuit priest and native of St. James Parish, remembers hearing from his family that the bonfire custom in Louisiana was started in St. 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 (1979). In a recent oral history project on bonfires, the German-Acadian Coast Historical and Genealogical Society found oral documentation that a former Jefferson College student, George Bourgeois, began building bonfires in Mt. Airy (near Gramercy) in 1884 and that he had known the custom as a student of the Marist priests (Guidry 1990). Alcée Fortier, however, does not mention bonfires in his descriptions of holiday customs in his 1894 Louisiana Studies, though he was born and raised in St. James Parish and graduated from Jefferson College. A note in Louisiana History dates the bonfires from about 1897 but does not give the source of this date ("Louisiana Christmas" 1972). In Cabanocey , Lillian Bourgeois describes the bonfire tradition in St. James Parish in Louisiana and says that they originated near Convent on New Year's Eve and were built on the batture. In the 1950s, she says, they were moved to the levee and lit on Christmas Eve (1957:154). My own childhood memories of bonfires in St. John the Baptist Parish in the 1940s and 1950s are that they were very much an established Christmas tradition but much smaller and built in one or two days.
While lighting bonfires as part of ritual and celebration is ancient in origin the continuing fascination with bonfires and fireworks as part of religious ritual, community celebration, and tourist spectacle has been noted. Stanley Brandes discusses the religious and secular elements of fireworks in the Fiesta de Febrero in Tzintzuntzan (1981), and Venetia Newall discusses the relation of the social setting to two English fire festivals (1972). Vladimir Propp says in a study of Russian festivals that prior to the nineteenth century at Christmas time "big bonfires were made, and the dead were called to warm themselves" (1987:236). Regina Bendix notes that in 1805, in Interlaken, Madame de Stael was "particularly taken with the bonfires lit on the surrounding hilltops that commemorated the fires of liberty of the original Swiss confederation" (1989:131).
The French expression for bonfire is feu de joie , or "fire of joy." in Manuel de folklore Francois contemporain, Arnold Van Gennep explains the custom of feux de joie in France and says that feux de joie were part of religious holiday celebrations and were held several times a year, including the Eve of the Epiphany, New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve, and in some places the feast of the patron saint. In other parts of France they were held only on the Eve of the Epiphany or on Christmas Eve. Much of this custom in France disappeared in the early twentieth century (Van Gennep 1958:3033-3068). The holiday bonfire custom in south Louisiana seems to have definitely been derived from the French custom. In Tales from the Levee , I attempt to trace the origins of the bonfires in this area and describe them at that time as "a true folk tradition" that has "escaped, so far, any involvement with commercialism," though there were some indications of change and variations in the shapes of the pyres (Gaudet 1984:9-14). Nicholas Spitzer refers to the feux de joie and the rural Mardi Gras as "traditional folk events" in Louisiana (1985:78).
Until the past few years, lighting bonfires on the levee on Christmas Eve was a true folk tradition in this area. Like many folk customs that come to the attention of the media and tourists, however, the bonfires seem to have changed considerably, becoming a spectacle with questionable tradition and shades of pyromania, along with ordinances to regulate them, complaints from ecologists, and commercialism. In the last five years, there have been definite changes in the bonfires, with major media coverage from the television stations in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and reporters from as far away as Atlanta. They have become a spectacular pyrotechnic display, drawing over 40,000 visitors in the last few years.
The traditional shape of the bonfires is that of a tepee though there have been some variations, such as the square pyre (or "fort"), and beginning in 1975, small log cabins and ships. The construction of the bonfire pyres usually begins shortly after Thanksgiving. Traditionally the young boys and young men get together to cut and gather logs along the river or in the swampy woods behind their homes, and each bonfire is planned and built by an informal group of family and friends. Usually there is a recognized "leader" of each bonfire, though this is an informal designation, who lights the fire on Christmas Eve. There is no definite time to light the fire other than "when it gets dark." Though individuals buy and use fireworks at the bonfires, there is no organized or central fireworks display. There is also no use of costumes or disguises, no begging or mummimg, and no procession of participants, though now there is a motor procession of spectators, mainly from Baton Rouge and New Orleans, who drive their cars along the River Road. Drinking is a usual part of the celebration, but food is typically a part of the later get-together in the homes.
Along with the more traditional bonfires, since 1985 there have been spectacular pyres built in the shape of symbols of wealth and power. In 1985 one bonfire pyre was in the shape of a local antebellum mansion with two circular staircases and even an outhouse. The pyre was so large and well-constructed that people could walk up to the second floor and the widow's walk on the roof. Other spectacular pyres have been a replica of the Louisiana Superdome (1987), an offshore oil rig platform (1987), and a train with four cars (1988). These bonfires are no longer mainly built by the young people but often by organized groups. For example, the Gramercy Fire Department builds a novelty bonfire each year and sells gumbo, beer, and souvenirs as a fundraiser. The atmosphere at these bonfires is somewhat like Carnival in New Orleans, along with cotton candy vendors and souvenir "bonfires" for sale. Indications of the importance of the bonfires in this part of Louisiana are the "bonfire aprons" given to customers by a local bank, a pen and ink sketch of a bonfire pyre by an artist with prints for sale, and several "bonfire" Christmas cards. Zapp's Potato Chips in Gramercy has a special Christmas package with a drawing of a bonfire and "Gramercy- Christmas Bonfire Capital of the World" written under it. All of these feature the traditional tepee shaped bonfire pyre.
There have been innovations in the shapes of the pyres since 1975 (small log cabin), and some of these changes are certainly because of the long standing tradition in the area of trying to build the biggest and best bonfire. The building of spectacular pyres, however, is surely encouraged by the media attention and tourists. The media coverage began in the mid 1970s and has increased each year along with the crowds of visitors.
The builders of the bonfires, however, do not feel that they are built for tourism. The river parishes are not a major tourist area, other than for tours of antebellum homes, and tourism does not have a large economic impact on the area. There are few motels or restaurants. Nolan Oubre, Fire Chief of the Gramercy Volunteer Fire department, noted that even the novelty or "tourist" bonfires are "not primarily to attract tourists or to make money" but are a matter of tradition and community pride. He explained that the Gramercy Fire Department started serving gumbo and providing portable toilets as a convenience for visitors since there are few restaurants or restrooms available along the River Road. He also pointed out that most visitors return to New Orleans or Baton Rouge after viewing the bonfires (1989). 1
It is interesting that changes in the bonfires and the building of pyres that symbolize wealth and power coincide with a time of severe economic depression in Louisiana, beginning in 1985. Perhaps the increased novelty of the pyres heightens the celebration and lifts the spirits, in addition to providing fundraising opportunities for community groups. Other holiday customs in this area (e.g. the King's cake and Mardi Gras) do not seem to have changed noticeably in recent years except that, like the bonfires, they are less family centered. The focus on the bonfires in this area and the resulting pride is perhaps due to the common belief that it is a unique Christmas custom.
Until the late 1970s there was no regulation of the bonfires. With increased media coverage there were also many complaints by environmentalists and ecologists, and some of the area governments approved ordinances to regulate the bonfires and restrict their size. Much of the real "hype" came after these attempts at control.
According to Fire Chief Nolan Oubre, all bonfires must have permits from the Levee Board. Since Gramercy is an incorporated town, rules must be submitted to the Levee Board for approval. The following are Levee Board regulations, as specified by Fire Chief Oubre:
1. Fires must be at least 125 feet apart.
2. Fires can be no higher than 25 feet. (This rule went into effect in 1987; it was 28 feet for a few years prior to 1987; before then, there were no regulations.)
3. Fires can be no larger than the crown of the levee-12 feet in diameter.
4. No tires, creosote, or "foreign matter" may be used, due to environmental concerns.
5. Each town is allowed one "tourist attraction" with no regulations at all.
In Gramercy, the Volunteer Fire Department has the "tourist" bonfire. In 1987, the media estimated that over 40,000 people visited the Gramercy fires. The Volunteer Fire Department served over 20,000 plates of gumbo for the event which supports the department. On the east bank of St James Parish, there were 97 fires in 1987. The fire chief in each town determines if the fires can be lit on Christmas Eve, based on the wind factor. Clean up must be done the morning after because of the Levee Board's insistence, and the townspeople of Gramercy perform this task because of their community pride in the event (Oubre 1988).
The building of the fires, in addition, has become a kind of folk craft. Building a good bonfire, i.e., one that will burn evenly and without collapsing prematurely requires skill. The designing and building skills have been demonstrated at folk craft festivals in other parts of Louisiana.
Several things are occurring at once in the bonfire tradition. The obvious reaction to tourism and media has resulted in commercialism. On the other hand, the reaction to attempted restrictions and regulations has resulted in more people getting involved in the activity. Though the "spectacle" type bonfires draw the crowds, the more traditional bonfires continue more or less unchanged, except for the traffic congestion on the River Road. We see here both a holiday custom being maintained in the traditional way, with the traditional meanings, and a show being put on for spectators, for fund raising, for publicity, for the "fun of it," i.e., to have a good time. This duality is possible because of the dynamics of the custom. The bonfires once were basically a private holiday celebration of small groups of family and friends gathering to celebrate Christmas with a bonfire, much like a private birthday celebration. There was no community organization or planning. The nature of the private celebration, of course, made it highly visible to the public since the bonfires were built on the top of the levees of the river and the spectacle of all these fires burning and reflecting in the river drew the attention of the media.
There is, of course, the question of traditionality. Can the bonfires still be called traditional or folk custom? What is it that makes them traditional? Certainly celebrating Christmas by lighting a bonfire is traditional in this area-like the lighting of the Yule log and the lighting of the candies on a birthday cake. The bonfire builders seem to be aware of tradition in building the fires or at least a sense of continuing something that has been done before. The event is also something that is genuinely enjoyed by all the people and regarded as a "good time" by the young. As Venetia Newall notes with two English fire festivals, this fun factor is also a vital part of the survival of the bonfires (1972:245).
It is not really the shape per se of the bonfires that changed the nature of the celebrations because for the past 12 years different shapes have been utilized. Of more importance is the nature of the group involved. Traditionally, and still the ease for the majority of bonfires, a close-knit crowd of family and friends celebrates together what is basically a private occasion in a highly visible space. The event is quite different when the crowd is so large that they neither know each other nor the builders of the fire and when gumbo and drinks are sold to visitors.
The changes in the bonfire celebration reflect, among other things, the changing attitudes towards Christmas and how it should be celebrated. For some it is no longer a private or family-centered Christmas celebration but is a secular festival to entertain "outsiders" and attract media coverage. The bonfires have been compared in fact, to a "one day Mardi Gras" or Carnival season. While the builders of the more spectacular bonfires make this comparison with pride, this aspect is disturbing to other more traditionally inclined people in the area who feel that this kind of Carnival atmosphere is inappropriate on Christmas Eve. In discussing a similar attitude toward Christmas and Carnival on Saint Vincent, Roger Abrahams points out that Christmas is "a time of restraint when one reaffirms one's place in the community, while Carnival is a time when one loses one's identity through masking and other licentious activities." Abrahams further observes that "Carnival is properly played on the street, while Christmas performances are given in the yard; this is a physical differentiation of great symbolic importance to the Vincentian, for as noted the yard is the family place, the place of privacy, while the street is almost synonymous with spottiness, rudeness, dissension and trouble" (1972:278).
Something quite similar is operating in the bonfire situation because in many ways the levee is an extension of the yard for the property owners along the river. The levee is much more like the sidewalk through one's property than a street since the property owners do own the batture between the levee and the river and they maintain certain traditional rights to the levee, such being able to fence it in or build a gazebo on it--though few people do this anymore. The communities are built along the river, and those who have property on the River Road are likely to host bonfires or, in the case of older residents, to give permission to people they know or to an organized group to build a bonfire in front of their property. According to Fire Chief Oubre, though the levee is owned by the State of Louisiana and the landowners actually have no control over what goes on, there are some rights that have been traditionally observed. Some landowners do object and do not want a bonfire in front of their homes, and the town observes this courtesy. Many feel that the bonfires become too much like a Carnival, with the problems of traffic, noise, and general littering which leaves the levee in a mess on Christmas morning, and they prefer the smaller, more traditional bonfires.
The bonfires are in a time of peak transition; they are still linked with the religious holiday (Christmas Eve) but with no overtly religious dimensions. Like most traditional celebrations, the term festival is not applied by local people to the bonfire celebrations (See Stoeltje 1983:239) However the tourist bonfires certainly have the aspects of a festival presented as a spectacle for outside consumption and featuring "rites of conspicuous display" (Mesnil 1976:24-27; Falassi 1987:4). Though it is generally accepted by scholars that customs and traditions change and are even invented (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Ben Amos 1984; Handler and Linnekin 1984; Bendix 1989), the tourist bonfires seem to cause some conflict within the culture group since some members of the community see the festival-like celebration as inappropriate for Christmas. With the spectacle of the fires and the fascination with the craft of the "tourist pyres," however, this aspect of the bonfires is becoming an established and generally accepted part of the holiday custom.
An interesting aspect of the bonfires is the growing sense of "tradition" from the perspective of visitors. According to several New Orleans natives, the Christmas Eve ritual for many New Orleans families has become the car trip "up the River Road" to see the bonfires, either in the afternoon to see the tourist pyres or at night to see other fires.2 There are also bonfire boat tours on the river.
Though the "spectacle" type bonfires draw the crowds and media coverage, the smaller, less elaborate, more traditional bonfires continue off the main path of the spectators and are still very much part of a folk tradition. We see therefore, both a custom being maintained in the traditional way and a show being put on for spectators. Because of the nature of this holiday custom, essentially an individual or private tradition, but a highly visible individual observance, it is possible for the folk tradition to be maintained while at the same time and in the same area, it has become a spectacle for visitors and media.
Abrahams, Roger D. 1972. Christmas and Carnival on Saint Vincent. Western Folklore 31:275-289.
Ben-Amos Dan.1984. The Seven Strands or Tradition : Varieties in Its Meaning in American Folklore Studies. Journal of Folklore Research 21:97-131.
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Mesnil, Marianne. 1976. The Masked Festival: Disguise or Affirmation? Culture 3:11-29.
Newall, Venetia J. 1972. Two English Fire Festivals in Relation to Their Contemporary Social Setting. Western Folklore 31:244-274.
Oubre, Nolan. 1988. Telephone interview, 10 October.
_____ .1989 Interview with author Gramercy. Louisiana. 24 December.
Poche, Reverend Louis. 1979. Interview with author. Grand Coteau. Louisiana, 8 June.
Propp Vladimir. 1987. The Commemoration of the Dead. In Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival , ed. Alessandro Falassi, 231-243. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Spitzer, Nicholas R., ed. 1985. Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State. Baton Rouge: Louisiana Folklife Program.
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1. My sister Gayle Hymel, a resident of St. James Parish, arranged for me to interview Fire Chief and directed me to other aspects of the contemporary bonfires.
2. Folklorist Sean Galvin, whose family lives in New Orleans, called this tradition to my attention (personal communication 1988).