Bonfires on the Levee: A Family Tradition in Ascension Parish
By Carol Gravois
The association of fire with festival occasions seems to have a long history, and the practice has been widespread throughout Europe. In Britain, for example, effigies are burned on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), fireballs swung, and barrels full of burning pitch rolled through streets on several occasions in several places (Shuel 1985:187,192). The old year may be burned out on December 31 in various ways (Kightly 1986: 215), and the bonfires associated with Guy Fawkes Night, November 5 (Pegg 1981:63ff; Shuel 1985; 185–187; Kightly 1986:130–131) and with Midsummer, June 23–24 (Brand and Ellis 1969:I,293ff; Kightly 1986:163–164) are well known. Indeed, Midsummer fires are known throughout the European continent:
Midsummer is a time of year which is particularly associated with huge blazes. Midsummer Eve (or the Eve of the Feast of St. John) is a particularly popular time for bonfires. In some places in Denmark a "witch" is burned on 23 June in the fires that spring up along the coast, and there are bonfires on the same evening in Finland, too, where people stay up all night celebrating. Similarly, in Norway, the Midsummer fires are accompanied by dancing and firework displays; and at Alicante, in Spain, wood and cardboard figures are burnt and bullfights held, while at San Pedro Manrique young men walk barefoot through fires carrying passengers on their backs. In the Wachau district of Austria . . . eggshells containing lighted wicks are floated down the Danube. In Ireland . . . Midsummer bonfires are still lit in some places (Pegg 1981:50151).
In France Christmas celebrations have been traditionally associated with bonfires, as well as with burning yule logs (see, for example, Seignole 1963:222) similar to those of England. Van Gennep (1943–1958:I,part 7,3032ff) notes a great variety of fires, fireballs, and torches used in conjunction with the Christmas season in a number of French regions, which have an assortment of names for these customs. In south Louisiana, particularly in and around Lutcher, Vacherie and Gramercy, Christmas bonfires on the Mississippi River levees have become prominent in recent years as they have been brought to the public eye. Newspapers and television stations have increased coverage each year until these bonfires have turned into a competition between their makers, each attempting to design and build the most original and the biggest. As Christmas approaches, large numbers of people become curious about the themes of the upcoming seasonal productions. Will it be bonfires in the shapes of pirate ships? Log cabins? Trains? What designs will be constructed and burned this year? So many people come from all over to watch these spectacles that policemen are required to direct traffic and maintain order. It might be thought, given the prevalence of the custom in France, the Louisiana practice came with early French settlers, but Gaudet (1984:11; see pp. 9–13 for her discussion of the bonfires; for her more recent comments, including some new information see Gaudet 1990) indicates that according to her informants the bonfires were not established before the 1880s and were introduced then by Maraist priests in Convent, who were familiar with the use of fire in seasonal celebrations in France. The fires were traditionally built in the shape of crude pyramids or "tepees", and it is only in recent years that there have been innovations in form. Wherever and however this tradition began, it has become highly popular.
While these bonfires in St. James and St. John the Baptist Parishes have become well known, there have been other bonfires (unknown even today by anyone except those of the area) further north on the west bank of the Mississippi River in a tiny, little–known community called Hohen Solms (approximately ten miles north of Donaldsonville). It was here that my great–grandfather, Jean Baptiste Gravois, bought a parcel of land on which to build his home. It was here that my grandfather, James Gravois, my father, Floyd Gravois, and his five brothers and two sisters were born and raised. It was also on this land that my cousins and I enjoyed family bonfires each and every Christmas Eve. Year after year, we drove to MoMo and PoPo's to eat evening gumbo and then charge out to the levee to light the fire and pop firecrackers. We (the kids) would stay out late into the night until we were called in by the adults. MoMo would serve her deliciously rich, home–made eggnog (with whiskey), and then those of us who lived elsewhere would begin our trek home, arriving just in time to hang our stockings and jump into bed. Our family continued this tradition until my grandparents died in 1963.
Although Christmas bonfires are some of my favorite and fondest memories, I knew very little about the preparation leading up to the big event and absolutely nothing about the tradition in earlier generations. In an attempt to remedy this ignorance, I set out on a journey into the past, interviewing my father, three of his brothers (James J. (Tuts) Gravois, Elmo Gravois, and Lloyd (Stump) Gravois) and two of my first cousins, Lloyd Gravois and Brenda Himel. My father and his brothers spent all their boyhood and adolescence on the River Road doing whatever imagination, daring, and nature would permit. They had each other, a small number of white neighbors, a community of blacks, hundreds of acres of cane fields, the levee, wild horses, and the Mississippi River. Once a year they had something spectacular, something that pulled together the rest of the year, something that has been passed on to two more generations: the BONFIRE. The following is a conversation I had with my father on February 2, 1990 as he related his memories about bonfires.
Carol Gravois: What I want you to tell me is . . . just go back to when you were a little boy and tell me everything you remember about bonfires.
Floyd Gravois: You see, we used to build bonfires like this here. We get a lot of logs and everything and stack up way high–fifteen or twenty feet–and we'd catch 'em in fire at the bottom, and it would burn, burn a long time. We had a piece of fire piled up wider than this room [approximately twenty feet], about fifteen or twenty feet high. We'd sit there and talking, talking to everybody, what we were like doing today, all day today. We played marbles, we played baseball, and uh, went swimming with a bunch of boys.
CG: Where did ya'll swim?
FG: In the river, right in that river. Yeah, yeah, we used the river, it was shallow, and did all that. I could tell you, oh lawd, I could tell you.
CG: Tell me about the bonfires. Ya'll did 'em on Christmas Eve or all through the year?
FG: Yeah, we'd do it for Christmas Eve, then Christmas Day and the next we might want to burn, burn for four days. Burn 'em, burn 'em up and for New Year's Eve we'd burn 'em again.
CG: Did you have fireworks?
FG: Yeah. We didn't have plenty, but we'd have some. We had Roman candles and some firecrackers, and it wasn't much to buy. They come from over there where the Chinese and Japanese . . . just Roman candles and some firecrackers.
CG: Daddy, when ya'll did the bonfires, did everybody else that lived down the River Road do 'em too?
FG: On yeah, all my cousins and plenty [other] people. . . .
CG: When ya'll collected wood, how long would it take? . . .
FG: Yeah, all of us. All of us. Yeah, look we used to go on the river, the river bank, by the levee, and we'd haul it. We ain't had no, no, we mighta had a horse, but ain't had no tractor. Nothing. We had to pack it, the wood, up to the top of the levee from way up there to about a mile, and it might take us a week. We'd haul all the wood and pile up, pile up, pile up, make five big old stacks, you know, and we'd leave 'em there until Christmas Eve, and then we'd light some of 'em. Christmas day we'd light some, and for New Year's we'd light some more. We'd burn 'em all. Yeah, then sometime we didn't build no fire. Like it might have been twenty–four, twenty–five men, boys, piled up there, and we'd keep on putting the wood and as it burned out, we'd put some more. We'd light it up about six o'clock, and we'd burn it until one o'clock, till Papa would call us to come on in.
CG: Ya'll had a Santa Claus?
FG: Oh, we ain't had no money. . . .
CG: But you can't remember if PoPo taught you how to do this?
FG: No, Papa didn't mess with us. We did it when we got big.
CG: You don't know if PoPo did it when he was little?
FG: Oh, I don't know, I don't. . . .
Unfortunately, Uncle Tuts remembered nothing about the bonfires. Uncle Stump was the only brother who never left the River Road; he still lives there in the same house that my grandparents lived in. Although he remembers the bonfires well and still participates (as an observer) in those that his daughter's family does, he had only a few comments to make about those from his childhood. Uncle Elmo, a natural story–teller, remembered everything like it happened only yesterday. His account was very much like my father's with only a little additional information and a few different points of view. He remembers that his older cousins (children of his father's brother began making fires first. They lived only about five hundred feet north of my father's family. Uncle Elmo assumes that both of their fathers must have been making fires themselves as young boys and passed the tradition to them. Differing from my father's remembrance, he recalls vividly that girls always attended. "Oh yeah," he says. "Everybody went to the levee. They had a big drove of people out there.". . .
Many questions had been answered, and, now I had no problem closing my eyes and picturing those boys building bonfires. Next I wanted to learn about the tradition in my generation, so I ventured out to visit my cousin, Lloyd (Li'l Lloyd we called him), who lives with his father in my grandparents' old home. Most of his forty–one years were spent on the River Road except the few when he was in the service. This is the information and insight he offered me:
We were pretty young when I built my first bonfire. Walter [our first cousin] taught me; he was the leader of the pack around here. He trained the white and the black kids–the "scout leader." Where he learned to build them? I don't know, maybe just saw somebody else when he was coming up. We were pretty young and when Christmas time . . . usually Christmas and New Year's was the time we built them. We'd start two or three weeks before Christmas scrounging wood, old tires, anything that would burn. We'd go behind the levee, get in a little boat sometimes and go across the little pond to the other side and cut wood. They had a little road that went back there, and if we felt a little energetic, we would drag a half a tree back. We'd go in the back of the house in the woods back there with our ax and chop down trees, sometimes cut 'em down and they were too big to drag back. We'd get back there and go crazy, you know. We'd go back there for a few weeks before. Every evening when we came in from school, we'd start chopping down trees and try to carry it back if it wasn't too big'cut it in the pasture or whatever. We'd go back like Davy Crockett and chop down a tree. Sometimes the trees were too big, and we'd go back days later and chop some of the branches off. We also had a big bamboo patch all the way back past the slough [low land filled with stagnant water], and bamboo was pretty good for bonfires too because it made it crackle and pop and all that stuff, you know. We'd spend a number of days dragging bamboo back. Tires were pretty good too to burn. We'd go up and down the road, a lot of black houses or families around here usually had old tires in their yards. You could gather up a lot of old tires. . . .
I don't remember anybody else around here doing bonfires. I thought it was something we thought of and nobody else did it. We'd build a fire at Christmas–it was usually cold, and the fire would keep you warm, and you'd get the sticks out to light your firecracker with. It was real exciting. We were off of school, didn't have to worry about school, and Christmas was coming. . . . [I]t was just a good feeling being outside, you know, and uh, being together with a lot of the family just like the Sunday used to be out here, you know, when a whole bunch of ya'll came down. . . . I think it was [the biggest day of the year] for us country people. It really was, and you didn't want it to end, you didn't want the fire to burn out, you know. You didn't want to come in. The fire wasn't really burning on Christmas Day, just smoldering, you know, smoking. The coals were still hot, but it would be gone by the next day, and you'd go out and look at the burnt coals and the burnt ashes and kind of reminisce about the week you took to get all this wood and how you had to con people into helping. You know, it was kind of sad the next morning when you go out and look at the ashes–just like a birth and a death, sorta like people.
Lloyd's family continued to build fires even after our grandparents' deaths. They were the only family members still on the River Road, and the rest of the family didn't go back on Christmas Eve. This tradition, however, stood the test of time. Brenda Gravois Himel, Lloyd's sister, introduced her husband Leo, to bonfires, and by the time their four boys (Leo Jr.,, Bert, Travis, and Todd) were older, it was time for them to take responsibility for the bonfire tradition. They built bonfires almost every year except the few when they moved away from the levee. I talked with Brenda, Leo, and the boys recently and their stories don't differ much from the previous ones. They say the fun is in the preparation; it pulls the boys and their friends together for a couple of weeks like no other activity can. The thrill, according to Bert, is watching it all go up in flames. They still go behind the levee to gather wood, but now they have tricks to help ease the load. Their earliest fires were in the traditional tepee shape, but last year, they built a log cabin, rich in fine detail. "The work isn't hard," says Bert, "it just takes dedication." "Will this tradition carry on into another generation?" I ask. Leo says as long as he's around, because this thing needs a leader, and he's it. Bert, spokesman for his generation, says bonfires mean a tradition, a time to get together for more than just a day–as long as he's around there will be bonfires. Brenda has two grandchildren, and perhaps with a little direction and inspiration from the older generation, they may take up the logs and keep them burning on the levee in the spirit of generations of ancestors.
Similarities are clearly seen between the three generations of bonfire tradition and also with the bonfire practices of the Lutcher/Vacherie area. Young boys were in charge of preparation for and execution of the celebration. Although adults may have been present as spectators, it appears that the younger family members and friends were the actual participants in the gala. I don't recall parents hanging around when we were on the levee, and, as, Daddy stated, "Papa didn't mess with us." Tepee–style structures were common throughout until the most recent years, and building materials were virtually the same–willows and other trees from behind the levee, bamboo and cane, and rubber tires. The primary functions of the fires were apparently the same: providing an opportunity for fun and assuring that family and friends would come together. It also appears that the continuation of the tradition was dependent upon families remaining in the original places of bonfires–the River Road. Family members who remained at Hohen Solms continued the tradition, while those who moved did not.
Differences are more subtle. For my father's generation, it is evident that the event was certainly one of fun and joining together, but it also seems to have been a time of reflection and celebration of the daily activities that went on through the year. In my generation, bonfires served more as a guarantee that the family members who had migrated to other areas would come together and form a group once more. Friends and "droves of people" were not part of our bonfires. We shared the levee with no one but first cousins. The third generation seems to have a combination of the first two. Their bonfires pull together the family, but they also include many friends with whom they have been active during the entire year. Whatever the differences in memory or point of view, they simply reflect the different ways in which the individuals perceived their environment and their place in it.
I still do not know definitely with whom this family tradition began. There is little doubt that my grandfather and his brother were making bonfires, but I suspect that my great–grandfather, Jean Baptiste, brought the knowledge of bonfires with him to Hohen Solms directly from France, from which he is said to have emigrated.
While interviewing my cousin, Lloyd, I asked what he like about the River Road. He replied, "I like the peace and quiet of being out of town. I like to stay here with the spirits, you know." Yes, I know. My project had brought me back to the land I used to visit and let me live there for a while. I now know the spirits, and when it came time for me to leave them on the River Road and return to Baton Rouge, I felt very much like Lloyd did on Christmas mornings. Something was born within me while the story–tellers were making the fires roar once more, and then the end came, a death, smoldering coals.
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Gaudet, Marcia G. 1984. Tales from the Levee: The Folklore of St. John the Baptist Parish. Lafayette Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Louisiana Folklife Series, no. 1.
_____. 1990. "Christmas Bonfires in South Louisiana: Tradition and Innovation." Southern Folklore 47:195–206.
Kightly, Charles. 1986. The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopedia of Living Traditions. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Pegg, Bob. 1981. Rites and Riots: Folk Customs of Britain and Europe. Poole: Blandford Press.
Seignole, Claude. 1963. Le folklore de la Provence. Parish: G. P. Maisonneyve et Larose.
Shuel, Brian. 1985. The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain. Exeter: Web and Bower.
Van Gennep, Arnold. 1943–58. Manuel de folklore francais contemporain. Parish: A. et J. Picard.