Monday, November 23, 2020

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Christmas in Plantation Country


The South is rich with holiday traditions and many, like Poinsettias and Pecan Pie, have become popular across the country. But there is one uniquely Southern holiday tradition and the only way to experience it is to be there, Louisiana’s Christmas Eve Bonfire festival. Local folklore says that the tradition goes back to the 1700s in the area now known as the River Parishes where early colonists would light celebration fires at the end of the fall harvest season. If you ask nearly anyone today though, they will tell you that the bonfires were started as a way to guide “Papa Noel” so he can deliver gifts to local children. Regardless of where it got its start, I wanted to check it out for myself, so Jennifer and I packed up the Acura RDX and hit the road. 

The festival is in the heart of New Orleans Plantation Country home to some of the most famous plantations in the South like Nottoway, Houmas House, and Oak Alley. While most of these historic properties function today as museums, many still have accommodations, for our time in Plantation Country, we booked a cottage at Oak Alley Plantation, directly across the river from the communities of Lutcher and Gramercy, the center of the bonfire festivities. 




We checked in to our cottage and headed out to meet with Stephan Keller of Creole Sugarland Tours to learn more about the history of the festival. Stephan, whose family roots in the region stretch back to the early 1800s is a master bonfire builder who has been building traditional and custom bonfires since he was a child. On display at his workshop in Vacherie, Louisiana are examples of his work, from large log pyramids to bonfires in the shapes of vehicles, animals, and even local landmarks. 

“Bonfires are a big part of the culture here, it's about family and friends. It is about a sense of community. They say that it started to light the way for parishioners going to midnight mass, but we were always told it was to light the way for Papa Noel” explained Stephan Keller. 

As the festival has grown bonfire building became a competition among neighbors who formed “bonfire clubs.” The weeks leading up to the bonfire club members are busy collecting wood, cane reeds, and other combustibles to pack into the framework of their bonfire. They used to surround the center pole with used tires because the burning rubber would produce thick smoke, but thankfully today tires and other toxic materials are banned from being burned. As the crowds grew safety became more of a concern, so today bonfires can be no taller than 15 feet. But that does not mean the competition is over, with elaborate themes, colorful fireworks, and even animatronic elements added in hopes of winning neighborhood honor for their bonfire club. 



Christmas Eve morning, after breakfast at Oak Alley, we drove across the river to watch as the clubs put their finishing touches on their bonfires. As we wandered the levee we watched as one group was layering roll after roll of firecrackers on the frame of their bonfire, another was bonfire was in the shape of a Pelican, the State Bird of Louisiana, and bonfires were being set up roughly every 100 feet as far down the levee as you could see.  Stopping at talking to any of the bonfire clubs resulted in being invited to join in the festivities with them, not just in general, but people were inviting us to join them at their homes for dinner parties. It just goes to show that no one does hospitality the way they do in the South.  



While it was very nice to be invited to enjoy the festival with so many locals we had already made plans to join a party at the home of Buddy Boe, a local with deep family roots in Gramercy, and he happens to be the executive director of the River Parishes Tourist Commission. We enjoyed traditional gumbo and drinks and got filled in on more local folklore before walking a few blocks down to the levees. People from all over the world had come to watch the lighting of the bonfires. We met a couple from Japan, a group of tourists from France, and busloads of people from New Orleans all flooding a town of just 3,600 people. 




As the sun slipped below the horizon, miles downriver the glow of the first fire could be seen.  Successively each bonfire is lit, and the flames get closer and closer.  Within a few minutes the bonfire we had chosen to watch, the one we had seen earlier that was packed with fireworks, was lit, the crackle of thousands of firecrackers going off as flames spread up the pyramid from its base. 


Christmas carols can be heard in the distance, fireworks explode in the sky reflecting off the Mississippi River, as lines of cars cruise along the levee. As the night goes on, the fires burn down and the crowds start to slowly dissipate, we make our way back to our little cottage across the river and hope that Papa Noel found his way to Plantation Country that night. 


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