Built to Burn ~ Les Feux de Joie


Standing atop the levee in Butte LaRose, a long, narrow settlement on the western edge of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, my traveling companion and I considered our options.  Breaux Bridge and Bayou Teche lay well behind while St. James Parish, home of the Christmas Eve bonfires we’d traveled to see, still lay ahead. Before us stretched an intricate web of bayous, canals, river and swamp, the natural heart of Cajun country.

With a good boat, good weather and a guide raised up in the swamps, we might have been able to thread our way eastward by water, to the other side of the Basin. But for the automobile-bound, topography is destiny. To cross the Atchafalaya and reach the Mississippi levees, we’d have to trade gravel and blacktop for concrete, throwing in a few bridges along the way. “I guess we’ll head north to I-10, take it across the basin and then head south again at Grosse Tête,” I said. “Sounds good to me.” My friend brushed the last crumbs of French bread from her lap. “I was hoping you weren’t going to wait for James Carville to show up on his flaming alligator.

Retracing our route across the pontoon bridge I’d laughingly dubbed Le Pont Steampunque in honor of its quirky appearance, we turned north along the river, passing camps of every sort (“camp” being a word used to describe homes found in and along Louisiana’s waterways and wilderness areas). It was surprisingly quiet. Apart from hunters and dog-walkers, few creatures were stirring, although the couple working the counter at the local convenience store assured us plenty of weekenders were back on the river for the holiday.


Reaching Interstate 10, the main east-west route from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, we found traffic heavy on the parallel bridges crossing the Basin. Savvy travelers, we’d made a stop for all the necessities before beginning our swamp-crossing. A modern eighteen-mile bridge may not seem like much of a challenge, but accidents do happen, especially where bridge lanes merge near the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel and the Atchafalaya River itself. When bridge traffic stops, stories are born. Cadence Lanté posted a photo of her Basin bridge experience on Flickr and added,

 The longest I have been stopped on the bridge was nearly three hours. Any time there is an accident, all traffic stops and people get out and walk around and visit. I usually get stuck about once a year. ALWAYS fill your tank, go to the restroom and have food and drink along before getting on this 17 [sic] mile long bridge!

While Laissez les bons temps rouler! may not be your first reaction to a traffic accident, there’s no question Louisiana life can be a little laid-back, a good bit humorous and often quite charming. Consider, for example, the matter of “The Sunshine Bridge”. 

We discovered the bridge after a trouble-free transit across the Atchafalaya Basin. Turning off Interstate 10 and winding southward with the river through the towns of Plaquemine, Bayou Goula, Modeste and Donaldsonville, we finally crossed the Mississippi on the original “bridge to nowhere”, a beautiful span that carried little more than farm traffic and sugar cane trucks after its completion in 1964.


Prior to its construction, the only way for traffic to cross the river between the Huey P. Long bridges at Baton Rouge and New Orleans was by ferry boat. When the new bridge replaced the Donaldsonville ferry, many thought it should be named for James Davis, who served two terms as Louisiana Governor.  Davis demurred, asking instead that the bridge be named for one of his greatest non-political accomplishments. Davis was a musician, and his biggest hit, You Are My Sunshine,  apparently was as popular with Louisiana’s bridge-naming authorities as it was with my family. The Sunshine Bridge it was, and is, and the next time I pass over it, I’ll sing a chorus or two in honor of the good Governor.

South of the Sunshine Bridge, the highway flows in tandem with the river it traces, unforced and easy.  Only miles now from Gramercy and Lutcher, focused on the bonfires ahead and lulled by the slightly soporific effect of watching miles of levee unwind, we might have missed a bit of bonfire history had the stand of enormous live oaks not caught our eyes and drawn our attention.

Glistening slightly in the thin December sunlight, their artful drapings of Spanish moss were beautiful.

Then we saw the house, surrounded and embraced by the marvelous oaks.

A scaled-down version of  Great River Road plantation homes, the house was completed in 1836. It served as the President’s House for the College of Jefferson, an institution chartered in 1831 to educate the sons of plantation owners along the Mississippi River.

A fire destroyed the original Main Building in 1841. After rebuilding in 1842, the College of Jefferson was back in business.  Twenty years later, during the conflict some still refer to as The War of Northern Aggression, the Main Building was occupied by Union Forces, from 1862 to 1864.

In 1864, Valcour Aime, reputed to be the world’s leading sugar producer, possibly the richest man in Louisiana and certainly the owner of the Jefferson College property, transferred the College to the Marist Fathers.  After Federal forces withdrew, the school was reestablished as St. Mary’s Jefferson College and continued operating under that name until 1927.  In 1931, the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchased the College, renaming it Manresa House of Retreats. The President’s House became Ignatius House, and this historical gem in the heart of St. James Parish now is regarded as one of the premier retreat centers in the world.

Much to our surprise, the roots of the bonfire tradition in Louisiana’s river parishes (St. James, St. John the Baptist and Ascension) lie tangled with the history of Jefferson College. Marcia Gaudet, who has written extensively about the practice, notes that bonfires probably were not customary among the original Acadian and German settlers of the area. Instead, they may have been reintroduced by nineteenth century French immigrants.

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…
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).

There’s no question the French expression for bonfire, feu de joie or “fire of joy”, is relatively common along the levees. In France, feux de joie often accompanied celebrations on the eves of Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany.  While the practice has waned in France, levee bonfires in Paulina, Gramercy and Lutcher (as well as smaller community and family bonfires) surely are part of that tradition.

Some say the first bonfires were lit to ease the way for those attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Others suggest their pupose was to help guide boats through wintertime fogs, and many believe without their light Papa Noël would have a hard time of it navigating the bayous and river. In the end, an even simpler explanation may help to account for their enduring appeal. When I asked a man setting up lawn chairs across from a fire-cracker-wrapped teepee, “What’s the best thing about doing this?” he straightened up and grinned from ear to ear. ” This how we pass a good time, cher! You know – we have fun!”

On the levee, a bonfire isn’t built in a day. These fires bear no resemblance to leaves burning in a side yard, or refuse and trash set ablaze on the back forty. These carefully constructed, teepee-shaped structures built of willow logs, bamboo, blackjack vine and cane reeds have their own traditions.  The construction process seems to be as much an attraction as the actual fires, and more people than I’d imagined make multiple trips to the levee just to watch the progress as logs are hauled in, center poles set and  calculations made.

There have been changes, of course. In 1984, Ronald St. Pierre, Mayor of Gramercy, decided to build a bonfire shaped like a Cajun house. By all accounts, 64,000 people showed up to have a look, and that was only the beginning. With a certain pride, St. Pierre says, “The year I built this river boat, I had traffic tied up from Gramercy to Gonzalez to LaPlace on I-10 and all the roads coming in.” 

Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing St. Pierre’s cane wagon and tractor, or his replica of Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”. But there were plenty of non-traditional bonfires this year, all equally delightful.

There was a distinctly non-Cajun reindeer…
There was Papa Noël in his pirogue, pulled by his eight faithful alligators – Gaston, Tiboy, Pierre, Alcee, Ninette, Suzette, Celeste and Renee...

There was a reminder of the true meaning of the season, accompanied by fervent hopes that the Holy Family and their visitors would be removed before the fires were lit…

There was a traditional teepee that looked as though it might have connections to the LSU engineering department…

And their supervisor…

There was an airboat, in case Papa Noël was late, or faced with thin water…

And an off-road vehicle that seemed perfectly at home perched atop the levee.

In the end, we chose not to stay for the fires. Our decision to lodge in Breaux Bridge rather than Baton Rouge meant we would be making a long drive home on unfamiliar roads, and that seemed unwise. Instead, we walked the levee, admired the handiwork, chatted with other levee-walkers and imagined what it would be like to see the Christmas Eve darkness filled with light.  Perhaps next year we’ll return, and a new tradition will be born.

Later that night in Breaux Bridge, with dinner over and the town shuttered-up for Christmas Eve, I stepped onto the gallery of the old boarding house. Rising dampness muffled even the sound of an occasional car shushing across the lift bridge and softened the laughter rippling across the bayou.

Picking my way down the steps and through drifts of unraked leaves, I made my way to the Teche, to the landing where travelers disembarked in days when the bayou remained navigable and commerce flowed between its banks. Watching the water whorl and flow, I thought about the levee, where the fireworks were ending and the bonfires had burned themselves into ash. The airboat, the stable, the reindeer, teepees and truck – all were gone.

Some years ago, William F. Fagan interviewed Mayor St.Pierre about his own extraordinary bonfire creations. Fagan noted the creativity of the projects, and the amount of time, effort and skill that had gone into making them. Looking at a photograph of St. Pierre’s great bonfire train, the “Gramercy Express”, Fagan asked, “All this, Mr. Mayor, just to burn?”  With a smile, St. Pierre replied, “Just to burn.”

Thinking of that smile, I smile myself. Perhaps a lifetime of bonfire experience has given the good Mayor a glimpse of an even larger truth. We, too, are bundles of memory and hope, structures of longing and expectation built upon the landscape of history. It is our fate to burn, to be consumed by one kind of flame or another.  If we are blessed to be set alight with torches of curiosity, commitment, passion and care, we have a chance to become the best kind of fire – a fire of of joy, lighting the way for travelers in the dark.


This is the third of three entries about a Christmas-time trip into Louisiana’s Acadiana. Click here for Part One: Over the Bayous and Through the Swamp
Click here for Part Two: Rising and Shining – An Atchafalaya Tale
Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.
Published in: on January 15, 2012 at 8:36 pm  Comments (62)  
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  1. You’ve outdone yourself with that last paragraph, which is a great prose poem of a dénouement.

    • Steve,

      Let’s put it this way – the imaginary trash basket I keep handy for excess words was overflowing before I got that paragraph done.

      Thanks so much.

      Linda

  2. Because I didn’t want to detract from your poetic writing with lesser matters, I’m putting a few miscellaneous things here.

    You sparked my interest in “You Are My Sunshine,” so I did a little searching and at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Are_My_Sunshine

    I found a fair amount of information. One interesting thing is the claim that the melody appears to be based on, of all things, a Ukrainian folksong. Hmmm. Don’t know if I buy that.

    Speaking of sparking interest, the English word bonfire comes from the Middle English term banefyre or bonnefire, meaning ‘bone fire,’ because it was originally a fire in which bones were burned.

    If French has feu de joie, literally ‘joy-fire,’ it also has fille de joie, or ‘joy-girl,’ which readers can infer the meaning of.

    • Steve,

      I bumped into the “who was first” discussion while looking for Davis’ recording of the song. Truth to tell, “based on a Ukranian folksong” sounds like a wiki line from a miffed competitor.

      In any event, your comments reminded me of a line from Joan Didion: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”

      In this case, I think the same could be said for the song. Davis certainly claimed it hardest.

      I never would have made the connection with “bone-fire”. I had assumed “bonnefire”, in the sense of “good-fire”.

      As for “fille de joie”, I note that “Fille de Joie Vintage Boutique” on Grand Street in Brooklyn has changed its name to “Le Grand Strip”. So there we are. ;)

      Lindal

  3. You do have a way with words, Linda. Thank you for sharing your journey and the festivities. I had been in that area many times in my early 20s and had no idea about what happened at Christmas time! Perhaps someday we will make it there to see it for ourselves.
    ~ Lynda

    • Lynda,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the read. Now that I’ve been there, seen so much and learned so much about what I did see, I’m clearly going to have to go back.

      One thing I couldn’t pack into this almost-too-long post was that Lutcher has a bonfire festival two weeks or so before Christmas Eve. It’s a more touristy event with music, food and so on, but each night bonfires built especially for the festival are lit. You can see the poster and schedule from this year’s event here. It’s a nice option for those who can’t be away from home on Christmas Eve.

      Linda

  4. I read this post with great interest when seeing the word Bonfire. Do You have Bonfires only in Christmas time? In Finland we have Bonfires on Midsummer’s Eve only. People are burning Bonfires on lake shores generally. Individual Bonfires are small, but those arranged by some organization are big.

    Normally people watch them and dance. We have dancing culture (I mean real dancing, no disco) in Finland and during summer time, people go to dancing on some open air dancing pavilion. We have open air pavilions around our country. Combining this habit with bonfires at Midsummer is the highlight of summer.

    Maybe You might see some photos from our Midsummer cruise on a lake watching some bonfires.

    Midsummer cruise / Croisière de la Saint-Jean .

    Happy Monday!

    • Sartenada,

      Many people like to build bonfires at the beach, or when camping, but those are small, and meant only for the groups that are enjoying them. You can find that sort of bonfire at any time of year. When I was young and living in our “snow country”, we would build bonfires at our skating rink to in the winter.

      Traditional bonfires like the ones in this post are uncommon, I think. Because the country is so big, with so many different customs, celebrations that reach back many years often are unknown to other people. I have lived in Texas off-and-on since 1971, and yet I knew nothing about these bonfires until a month ago – and they only are 275 miles away!

      We do have open-air dance pavilions here in Texas, although not so many since air conditioning arrived and dance halls became more popular. It must be wonderful to combine dancing and bonfires at midsummer.

      Thank you for stopping by, and for your comment. You’re always welcome!

      Linda

  5. What a wealth of information all bundled in one post! And those magnificent wooden structures… what a pity to have to be burned up. But then again, you’ve shown us why in your ending. Why of course, some sacrifice has to take place in order to shed light. I sure hope too that the nativity characters would be removed before the fire was started, but then again, reality is, the Character had been burned up to offer us light. That bonfire could well make a meaningful object lesson.

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Linda. And what an adventure you’ve taken while all of us were in our homes displaying and fixing strings of artificial, ornamental lights.

    • Arti,

      Of course, if this year’s crop of bonfires weren’t burned, there’d be no room on the levee for next year’s creativity and fun! And the linked articles make another point. The teepee structures are traditional – the boats, reindeer, trains and so on have become tourist attractions, drawing outsiders into the community. With that, a certain competitiveness has grown up, to see who can build the biggest, best or most unusual structure.

      From what I gather, there’s a bit of tension between those who prefer the traditional, family-based celebrations and those who don’t mind the traffic jams. Once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

      And I’m sure the nativity figures would have been removed. There’s just no question in my mind about that. You might enjoy this photo, too – a life-sized nativity at the Manresa retreat center, just off the road under the oaks. We saw it in the daytime, but I couldn’t get a good photo of it, then.

      All of this puts me in mind of the song – “This Little Light of Mine”. It doesn’t make a bit of difference whether it’s a spectacular bonfire or a single string of bulbs, as long as it shines. ;)

      Linda

  6. WOW….. you segue through so many topics in one post that it is frequently very hard to decide what to comment on.

    I do have to say that the Sunshine Bridge reminds me of our old Grace Memorial bridge over the Cooper River.

    I was amazed to find that not all bonfires on the levee are created equal. I assumed that they were all in the traditional teepee configuration. How delightful to find such creativity.

    Even with bonfires, sometimes the journey to get there is as interesting as the final destination.

    Another marvelous read.

    • Gué,

      Ha! You should thank your lucky stars I have a healthy internal editor – and I still pushed my limits with this one.

      That Grace Memorial is one fine bridge – and I like the way the information has been preserved. In the process of putting this post together, I discovered a group called Bridgehunters. I think you’d enjoy browsing their site, too. Apparently they’re much like railfans, except chasing bridges is easier – the bridges tend to stay put.

      I did some research before the trip, so I knew there would be at least some unusual bonfire structures. I really liked one that was built a couple of years ago – a huge fleur-de-lis. Always, there are some that have firecrackers stuffed inside, or strings of them hanging on the outside.

      It was quite a journey, for sure. We were gone for two days, and by the time we got home, I felt like I’d been gone for two weeks!

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it – thanks!

      Linda

  7. I find all the structures amazing! Like Gué – I didn’t realize that they would construct different kinds.

    I must say, what was going through my mind the whole time I was watching the video of the fires, was, what keeps the fire from spreading? I take it everyone is watching their own fire? It looked like they were constructed in grassy areas. What kept the other grass from catching on fire? I’m honestly just curious!

    Like someone else above, the last paragraph just pulled it all together. Eloquently put!

    • Karen,

      As you might imagine, the increasing popularity of the bonfires has necessitated some regulation. I haven’t explored the rules and regs, but I do know that permits are required, there’s careful spacing between the fires, and under certain conditions – like a strong wind blowing toward the towns! – the fires wouldn’t be lit.

      Also, if you scroll up and look at the photo of the chair next to the teepee, you can see part of the answer to your question. Most levees have roads atop them – if not all. They’re meant primarily for maintenance, not public traffic. But it does keep the top of the levee clear. This stretch either has a road or has been cleared – the dirt “pathway” stretched all the way along the top. Quite a few “campfires” had been built up there, too.

      The willow trees you see behind the stable are on what’s called the batture – the space between the levee and the river. The river is really quite close, and I can’t imagine the fire spreading much in that direction.

      The other thing that occurs to me is that the shape of the teepee bonfires themselves would help to send the heat and flame up, rather than out. Maybe some scientist will come through, read this and either confirm or deny it!

      It was a wonderful trip, and I loved telling the story. Thanks for reading – I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Linda

      • I see what you are talking about – the clearing where the actual teepees are set. I guess, coming from California, where so many wild fires have spread from wind, all that went through my head was one good spark bursting and sending out a good lit spark, and we’d have more fire. But then, I looked more closely again, and the grasses looked pretty green and short, so like you said, it wouldn’t go far!

        • While we were there, I saw smoke from a “regular” fire coming from atop the levee, and asked someone about it. He said there often are people who have fires, smokers and grills up there while they’re working on the structures. I suspect they’re pretty darned careful, especially in windy condition.

  8. An utterly glorious ending to this series of posts. So many things I’ve newly learned: I didn’t know the origin of “You are My Sunshine,” a favorite in our house, as well. You’ve given us many gifts with these wonderful posts. In return, may your New Year be filled with the “fire of joy.”

    • Susan,

      It’s been such a fun project. I learned many new things myself, and there’s not much in the world that makes me happier than that, unless it might be knowing I gave someone else a glimpse of a fine “new world” to enjoy.

      Who knows what treasures we’ll discover in the new year? I’m looking forward to that, too.

      Linda

  9. Lovely post – great last paragraph

    • philosophermouse,

      Thanks, so much. It was just the right experience at just the right time, and such fun to share!

      Linda

  10. Well, I just love this – and especially when I had no such idea that these Christmas “feux” were happening! Bonfires at Christmas!
    And I love the “sculptures” created on which they base their bonfires. Art! Form and function!

    There is something that stirs the soul about light and fire and stars at Christmas. And yet there’s a bit of it here – though how puny our little firepit in which I am inclined to build a fire (outside) while we are keeping the (indoor) oven busy with Christmas feasting.

    Oh, I feel connected when there was not a whisper of one prior to reading this!!! What a cool (hot) tradition. Lovely, this.

    PS Oh, and the book? The one I am always thinking you should compile. And NOW, you have the theme/trend/path – travel!!!!

    • oh,

      I ran into a few little hints that, at one time, the bonfires were a New Year’s tradition, as well. I like that, too. Figuratively burning the old to make room for the new works as well as ringing out the old, and ringing in the new. But whatever the history, they’re firmly associated with Christmas Eve now, and quite wonderful.

      This entire experience has been revelatory in a couple of ways. There’s the pleasure of discovering a marvelous community and tradition so close at hand, of course, with all of the amazement that entails. But now – I have to wonder… What else is out there that we don’t know about? Who knows what undiscovered treasure is buried amid all the shopping malls, sandwich franchises and such?

      It’s really a rather delightful thought!

      Linda

  11. The bonfires definitely sound like more fun than sand castles although they are fun too. Temporary art. It’s like the seasons, a new day.
    That is the difference between people who build monuments and people who make memories.

    • Nanette,

      There’s nothing wrong with monuments, really – but it can be so easy to forget that the purpose of a monument is to commemorate, to aid memory. I’m thinking of the carvings done with the Galveston oaks destroyed by Ike – those are some of the best monuments ever.

      Here’s my suspicion – however tenuous, there’s a direct link between sand-castlers, bonfire builders and the two year old who ever-so-carefully builds that tower of blocks and then giggles uncontrollably as he knocks it down. Creation and destruction – one of the cycles of life.

      Linda

  12. I really don’t know what to say except thank you.

    This has been a magnificent series, a travelogue par excellence.
    You have brought an area and its traditions alive for me and I am now curious to learn much more about it. I had no idea that German settlers settled in Louisiana and I had no idea what the term Acadia meant.

    I am sorry, but understand, that you did not linger to watch the fireworks; your description would have created fireworks on the page.

    Lucky you, this was an inspirational trip. I hope there will be others.

    • friko,

      I wasn’t aware that a “German Coast” existed in Louisiana, either. I’ve always associated German immigration with Texas. I knew a woman years ago whose parents arrived by boat at Indianola, twice destroyed as a port by hurricanes prior to 1900. Like so many others, she grew up with oxcarts and buggies on the coastal plain, and the stories she told were marvelous. So was her stollen, for that matter.

      I had to stop myself from getting into that part of the story here, but you might enjoy this article from “Louisiana Folklife” entitled Getting to Gemutlichkeit: German History and Culture in Southeast Louisiana”.

      I was both pleased and amazed with how well this series worked. An artist whose blog I follow quoted Leonard Bernstein just this morning, to the effect that “Any great art work … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”

      These blogs aren’t great by any stretch, but I do think they allowed you and others to inhabit the world of the bonfires for just a bit. What more could I want?

      Linda

  13. Linda: What a fine post! I never knew about bonfires in Louisiana or their origin. I must look into the Ignatius House for a retreat place. I was so intrigued by these customs, and so close to where I live, not halfway to Timbuktu.

    That we all burn with fire is both a physical and mystical reality, I think. I’ve always liked such correlations and your last paragraph is especially transcendent and meaningful to me. This is a very unique post. I will read the other two parts.

    • Jack,

      Thank you, very much. It is still an amazement to me that I’ve lived so long in Texas without knowing a thing about this Christmas tradition. Of course, even some Louisiana friends knew nothing about them. Only recently have the celebrations begun to gain exposure, particularly with the help of Mayor St. Pierre.

      The grounds surrounding Manresa are beautiful, and the facilities seem splendid. Another amazement was the lovely church of St. Peter Chanel, just down the road in Paulina. It is so evocative of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, there is no doubt in my mind the arcitects were paying homage. There wasn’t a place for the photo in this post, but you can see it here.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this – I do hope you read the other parts. The first, especially, explains how I just “fell into” this experience.

      Linda

  14. This is absolutely amazing! I never would have realized how beautiful this could be or the creativity that goes into the whole thing. Oh, the wonderful experiences you had on your holiday — bonfires and southern homes, cajun cooking and B&Bs, road trips and steampunk! It’s a lifetime of experiences in this series and I’m so very glad you had the opportunity to experience them all!

    • jeanie,

      And the best news is there’s so much more to experience. There are other little trips that could be wonderful fun – and they’re all written down in one of my favorite journals – the one with the big, bright sun reminding me to “rise and shine”!

      I hadn’t thought of something else until today. Everything I read and heard is that families and groups begin working on their bonfires just after Thanksgiving. So, while much of the world is beating each other up in the malls, these fine folk are re-living decades’ old traditions, renewing ties and beginning to re-create their Christmas eve out on the levee.

      I know where I’d rather be!

      Linda

  15. A great travel post, with a very personal message at the end, which I liked very much. Bridges make me think about how I miss my Sydney Harbour Bridge. Bonfires have brought to mind a Guy Fawkes night celebration at my school back in England, some time before the age of ten. The Guy Fawkes effigy on the bonfire was dressed in the head master’s old pyjamas.

    • Andrew,

      I knew about Guy Fawkes, of course, but only in a fuzzy, general sort of way. I didn’t realize until very recently (say, three weeks ago) that bonfires are such a part of those celebrations. No effigies on the river, though. I presume your head master donated those pyjamas and did have them “borrowed” by some creative boys!

      I’ve seen some footage of that bridge, and the fireworks set off over the harbor. I can see why you’d miss it!

      Linda

  16. Hi Linda,
    Actually I know you had the “black out” yesterday but I still managed to get in here to read your part 3 of your Christmas Stories; I just could not leave a comment yesterday so I return today!

    I just LOVED this story; I loved all 3 stories but this one was the perfect finisher! Now I want to go see those bon fires on Christmas Eve; what you and your friend did just sounds like so much fun and what a great tradition you have going now.

    I always look forward to your delightful stories. Thank you and keep them coming!

    Patti

    • Patti,

      We always think of holiday traditions as having been around “forever”, but in fact many of them – especially the ones that are unique to our families – have a recognizable starting point.

      Whether I’ll be back in Louisiana next year is an open question, but I do suspect my friend and I will travel to some destination to celebrate. I think you’re right – you’ve been here for the birth of a new tradition!

      Thanks so much for coming back to leave a comment – it always makes me so happy to know you’ve enjoyed what I come up with here!

      Linda

  17. nice to tag along on your travels. i’ve been through the area, but it’s been years.

    • maggie,

      The more, the merrier, as the saying goes. Glad to have you along for the ride.

      It’s a great area, and whatever superficial changes have been wrought over the years, the people continue to be as open and welcoming as any in the country – at least that’s been my experience. If you ever get back, I predict you’ll enjoy it, too.

      Linda

  18. I stopped by early yesterday, but couldn’t stay long enough to finish reading or leave a comment. At least I think it was yesterday morning, but I read one comment about you blacking out yesterday. Maybe I’m confused. :) I know a number of places were blacked out.

    Thank you for taking us on your journey. What a tradition! I especially liked the pic of Papa Noël in his pirogue and his alligators. Ha!

    What an interesting part of our country and how rich are these traditions. It reminds me of those artist who make such beautiful sculptures in the sand for all to enjoy only for the tide to sweep them away.

    • Bella,

      I don’t think I blacked out – as far as I know, I was conscious the whole day! On the other hand, I did have to stop and think – when was that SOPA protest? The days are getting jumbled, with too much going on. Of course you know nothing about that…

      It was a great journey, and you’re exactly right about the similarities between bonfires and sand sculptures. Neither is meant to be permanent, and I think that heightens our enjoyment of them. Music’s like that. We may have a favorite piece stored on a CD or ipod, but the experience of music’s transitory. When the orchestra stops – it’s gone!

      The only thing that bothers me just a bit is that pirogue of Papa Noël’s. A big sled can carry a LOT of presents. Maybe now that electronic gadgets have become so popular, he needs less space than in the days of dolls and toy drums!

      Linda

  19. I just came here for the first time, from the Temptation of Words. I think that Louisiana’s tourist board should take your entries because you make me wish I could just pack up and see what you’ve seen. Oh. Wait. Your entry makes me feel I have.

    Your use of words and comfort in writing a long, meandering, lush tale punctuated with photos is extraordinary and so rare in the electronic world of text-speak and writing short. I’ll be back for the rest of the trip.

    • Jeanette,

      As the relatively new saying goes, so many blogs, so little time. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave such a kind comment.

      Thank you especially for noting the (ahem) length of this piece as a positive rather than a negative. I suspect I’ve lost readers (or at least commenters) because they simply aren’t willing to devote time to this sort of post. Still, it’s what I enjoy doing. I try to keep things within limits, but when I push those limits, it’s nice to know someone enjoys it.

      There’s no telling where I’ll be off to – geographically or subject-wise – this year. I’d be pleased to have you come back. You’re always welcome!

      Linda

  20. Wow, what a collection of images! I had no idea there were such long bridges in Louisiana. And the bonfire tradition looks like a lot of fun too. Hopefully you’ll get to visit and see the bonfires next time!

    • Alyce,

      Louisiana’s a great place for a long-bridge collector! There’s the one that crosses Lake Pontchartrain, too. It’s the longest continuous bridge in the world. I still remember my mother gripping the car seat when we went over that one!

      I know I’ll go back next year, one way or the other. I already have an idea or two for approaching things from a different angle. It’s such a rich tradition, there’s lots to explore and plenty of fun to share!

      Linda

  21. Yes, the last paragraph is a masterpiece of poetic writing!

    Christmas bonfires are popular in parts of Europe including Sicily. I never saw a bonfire when I lived there but it was WWII and it could be that the bonfires were suspended during the war.

    I am told by a cousin that in Sicily the custom is being revived to entice world travelers. He says that it used to be the custom of mountain people to light bonfires at night to keep Baby Jesus warm. It must be a pretty sight to see the blazing mountains.

    As usual you captured my interest with the first words you wrote and kept it alive until the last words. Enjoyable, entertaining, instructive, personal, and historical. What more could I ask for? Nothing.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in such a personal and interesting way.

    Maria

    • Maria,

      I had to laugh when you mentioned how pretty the “blazing mountains” must be. All I could think of was your description of sitting on the balconies or piazzas, watching Mt. Etna erupt. Better than television for sure, and perhaps more impressive than the bonfires. Still, there must be some comfort in delight in building such controllable fires in the very face of the uncontrollable.

      I love the thought of building the bonfires to keep Baby Jesus warm. I’m sure there was much fun and enjoyment accompanying the practice, just as there is on the bayou.

      I’m pleased and delighted to have kept your interest through this, particularly since you don’t suffer boring writers gladly! ;-)

      And I thank you, too, for something I’d missed until I went back to your Librizzi posts just now – this wonderful epigraph:

      “It is not that I belong to the past, but that the past belongs to me”.

      That’s a good bit of what this all is about – claiming the past for the sake of the future.

      Linda

  22. What amazing constructions those bonfires are! There is something wonderful and profound about putting so much effort into creating something that will just be burned.

    I love the image of Papa Noel being lead by alligators!

    Juliet
    Crafty Green Poet

    • Juliet,

      It is wonderful. And by the way, you’ll be interested to know that the primary wood used in these structures is willow, which is plentiful, fast-growing and not of any commercial value. The folks aren’t clear-cutting valuable trees for their celebration. And the use of air-polluting fuel, such as old tires, has been discontinued. Good move, that.

      Isn’t Papa Noel wonderful? I laugh every time I see him!

      Linda

  23. Thank you for allowing me to accompany you on this wonderful journey!

    • The Hook,

      Glad to have you along! Now, if you’d pass me one of those Diet Cokes from the cooler, we’ll figure out what’s next…

      Seriously – thanks for stopping by, and for the kindness of a comment. You’re always welcome.

      Linda

  24. Amazing story with remarkable photos. What is also remarkable is the comments you receive and what you share with each person. I wish I had more time to read each comment and your answer.

    • Martha,

      Truly, it was an amazing trip. There are people I know who think of Louisiana only as (1) casino destinations, (2) something to get through on your way to “the good beaches” or (3) the French Quarter. There’s not a thing wrong with casinos, NOLA or just passing through, but there’s so much more to the state.

      Aren’t the comments great? I really enjoying putting together the posts, but I love the give-and-take of the comments and the way different people respond to different things. As I often say, the posting isn’t the end, but the beginning – at least in my view!

      So good to have you stop by. Amazing that we’re nearly a month into a new year. I hope it’s going well for you!

      Linda

  25. I wonder if the tradition of Christmas bonfires also had one foot in the burning of bagasse? See pages 83 and 84 of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

    • Gué,

      It’s true that Jesuits brought sugar cane into Louisiana c.1750, early enough for its by-products to be a part of the bonfires. On the other hand, Twain’s own description points out why bagasse probably wouldn’t have been especially desirable – the smoke! Bagasse is often used for fuel in cane mills today, and an article I found about the process mentioned that the moisture content varies from 45% to 55% – probably the explanation for the smoke and the primary reason it wouldn’t work for the bonfires.

      Never mind Papa Noel – if one purpose was to guide boats on the river or the faithful to Mass, smoke wouldn’t be a good thing!

      It is interesting to read Twain’s description. When they’re burning the cane fields in Louisiana today, if the wind’s from the east, it can travel all the way over to Galveston Bay and reduce visibility considerably – not to mention messing up fresh varnish with its particulate matter! That’s how I got my first introduction to sugar cane – trying to figure out where all the sooty smoke was coming from that was ruining my work.

      I really do appreciate that link – it reminds me that I’ve got to get down to Half-Price books and pick up “Life on the Mississippi” while it’s still on sale!

      Linda

      • You’ve got to tell me how to post a decent link here. You’ve been nice enough to flip them from the URL to a link.

        I love Twain… He’s incredibly insightful and a wonderful ranconteur but, yet, so tongue in cheek with many of his observations. I don’t care how many times I read his works, I get something new out of them.

        • Gué,

          Left you a link to the link process over on your blog. ;)

          This is one of my favorite Twain quotations, absolutely applicable here!

          ““Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

          Isn’t that just the truth?

          Linda

  26. I LOVE that we finally got to see this, Linda…something I still can’t believe is new for me, after living in Atlanta fior 25 years. That shows to go ya that Atlanta is NOT the deep South, no matter what anyone says! Maybe to a few but not to the many!

    I especially liked that maybe “the first bonfires were lit to ease the way for those attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.” I can picture that!

    • GInnie,

      If it makes you feel any better, one of my best friends lived in Baton Rouge for years and didn’t know about the bonfires. I suspect most of us live with treasures right under our noses, and haven’t a clue.

      That’s one of the reasons I’ve stopped worrying about the fact that I’ll probably never get back to Europe in my lifetime. I’ve traveled overseas a good bit, and have more stories about those days than I’d ever be able to tell. Now, it’s time to explore my own country, and see what else might be hidden in plain sight.

      I didn’t get a photo of something else I liked – the small, family bonfires built on the levee or in yards away from the towns that have the majority of structures. There’s something amazing about the airpboat and truck bonfire structures, but there’s something warm and charming about the smaller teepees that clearly are built to be the heart of a family celebration. Family, faith and flames – there’s a theme that really could be developed!

      Linda

  27. Stopping by to say how I found the ending of this three-part story perfect. Not necessarily for the last paragraph, as good as that was… but because you felt no need to stay to see the bonfires lit. Even to the end, you stayed true to your “to-be-continued’ journey. Perhaps, the purchase of those car tags for Princess are in order…

    • Janell,

      I knew someone would see that implicit “to be continued” sign hanging back there – no, over to the left a little. There.

      And it’s not just about traveling. It’s also about the difference between a book and a blog. Books have final chapters. You read a book, you finish it, you close it and put it back on the shelf. You may talk about it, review it, re-read it, but at the end, it’s done.

      But any blog – yes, even the worst that are out there – is a different critter. It ends when the author says it’s over and closes it. Or, when the author dies or disappears. Like any good journey, it may start off in one direction and then head off in another. But it’s always a work in progress, with the readers themselves helping to shape the content – another blog/book difference.

      I just might have to think about those tags – and a new tagline for the blog. ;)

      Linda

  28. Linda,

    This was wonderful. I never knew about the bonfires of Louisiana.

    Your final paragraph was absolutely inspired…”curiosity, commitment, passion and care.”

    Mike

    • Mike,

      It’s been a joy to “discover” this custom, and share it with so many others who had no idea this was happening – sometimes, quite literally “right around the corner” from them.

      Sometimes, I produce bits of writing that do seem to be somehow inspired. I think about them a lot. If they “just happen”, that’s one thing. If there are certain conditions that help to enable them, being able to nurture those conditions might allow me to increase their frequency.

      I found an interesting clue to how a writer might do that in the July 11/18th issue of “The New Yorker”. In an interview, Jaron Lanier, author of “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto”, says, “If you listen first, and write later, whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say…”

      Interesting that there’s so much advice on learning to write, and so little advice on learning to listen.

      Linda

  29. Linda,

    I forgot in my previous comment to mention a book you might enjoy taking a look at. It’s “Vestiges of Grandeur,” by the photographer/writer Richard Sexton. It is about the plantations of Louisiana’s River Road.

    I don’t know if it is still in print (1999) but maybe you can find it in the library. The photographs are wonderful.

    • Mike,

      It is available – there was a 2011 reprinting. I’ll look around sites like Powell’s and see if I can’t find a copy. Our library does have it, so I can always find it there. (Love online search capability!) Thanks!

      Linda


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