In each issue, Staff Writer Angela Lorio explores all the various elements of what her Witchlife looks like: gardening, caring for her animals, a black cat, her beloved brown dogs, and horses. Here, the Louisiana native describes the beloved tradition of the Les Feux de Joie, a fire festival held along the banks of the Mississippi River. Though you’re certain to have heard of Mardi Gras, this festival sounds more homegrown and somehow, more magical.
Fear blossoms in the dark
Growing faster as the black sky
Deepens as the hours pass.
The questions creeps up from the base of the neck,
“Is this darkness forever? Will the sun return?”
Moreover, “Will we perish this long night?”
Fire. Light. Candles. Vigil. Watching. Waiting. Fire.
Science explains that the winter solstice results from our tilted earth being as far away from the planet while at the same time being at the most distant point along the orbital path. As the winter solstice approaches, the sun’s light and warmth spread over a larger portion of the world, making the surface feel colder and darker. The amount of daylight decreases as sunrise starts later and sunset starts earlier. However, long-ago humans only recognized that the nights seemed endless and cold. From Europe to Russia, fires, and especially bonfires, warded the night and celebrated the return of the sun. Both oral history and written history attest that people used fire as a portion of the ceremonies to diminish darkness, fight fear, and rejoice in the promise of the returning sun. Today, electricity powers an incandescent glow to push back on the longest night. However, fires still burn around the world incorporated into the rituals, celebrations, and traditions of winter solstice.
From Stonehenge to The Big Easy
On Christmas Eve, the fire sirens wail at seven o’clock, signaling the time to light over a hundred bonfires lining a twelve-mile stretch of the Mississippi River levee. The smell of diesel fuel and kerosene permeates the air as the smaller branches, bamboo, and dried sugarcane begin to smoke, sending out tiny tendrils of flame which travel inward to set the larger logs blazing. Fireworks hidden inside pop and flash; in the orange, yellow, and white glow, the shape of the bonfire becomes visible in the dark.
These tepee-shaped bonfires tower over twenty feet in height and have four or six sides. Each separate bonfire combines to form a blazing trail of light visible for miles in both directions and even across the river. Fireworks whistle and sparkle even louder and brighter as the heat builds, pushing most viewers further away from the bonfire’s base. Christmas carols, Zydeco tunes, plus a mix of country, rap, and hip-hop music float up from the cars driving on the Great River Road or the homes across the road. Les Feux de Joie, The Fires of Joy, brighten the night, chase away sorrow, and open Christmas day.
When asked, “Why the bonfires on the river?”, most people explain that the fires guide the Cajun version of Santa, Papa Noelle, and his pirogue* of gifts to the little children along the rivers and in the bayous. The history behind this event draws a path as eccentric as Louisiana’s waterways. Generations of families pass down the tradition of bonfire building. Construction starts with a permit and a center pole limited in depth for levee safety. To allow enough time, families begin building on Thanksgiving. Historians argue over the actual origin of fire traditions, but most agree that they arrived in North America with the European immigrants. One premise suggests that bonfires arrived in Southern Louisiana as result of the original displaced French Canadians, Acadiens. However, this belief fails to address the fact that there are not bonfire traditions in most of the Acadian settlements in the state. Because the bonfire practice starts with individual family groups, some suggest that building fires began as a means of getting children to clean the debris and driftwood from boat slips and inlets along the batture** at the river’s edge. The preferred premise explains that the 19th century French and German families that immigrated to the St. James Parish area brought their bonfire traditions to this small group of communities.
Families with homes on the river road enjoy large Christmas Eve gatherings where every kitchen has gumbo and rice on the stove. The mixers and liquor are shared and in good supply. Trees, decorations, and food overflow every room ready for everyone lucky enough to get an invitation. From the house party, the fires are just a short walk up the levee. The Louisiana Bonfires continue to draw people to a stretch of road with no hotels, few places to eat, fewer bathroom, and limited parking. The small community of Lutcher on Louisiana Highway 44 holds the honor of being the closet to center for the yearly bonfires. The 2019 estimate shows the town’s normal population as just under 3,200; however, the bonfires bring in an impressive 40,000 visitors. Louisiana never passes up an opportunity to laissez les bon tomps roulez*** with a good party.
My father grew up in Hahnville, Louisiana, which is a small community further down river from Lutcher. My father’s parents owned a home just across the road from the river levee. One year visiting my grandparents for Christmas, my parents decided my sister and I were old enough to take the bonfires on the levee. Arriving before dark, we looked at the huge tepees one after the other in a neat row. We found a small table selling hot chocolate in tiny Styrofoam cups to take the edge off the cold. At dark, the fires started, they leapt and danced before my eyes. I remember my awe from my safe- but-still- scary vantage point, sounds of popping bamboo startled me many times. With great pleasure, I was able to bring that family experience to my two girls. When we arrived at the levee, the two young teens failed to be impressed with the wooden structures until they started burning. Today Lauren recalls that they were the “coolest thing ever” and “like fireworks, only better.” She also remembered that the tepees looked like wooden skeletons with fire coming from their insides. I hope that someday she can take my grandsons to feel the heat from a Christmas tradition unlike any other in the country.
Les Feux de Joie remains too far off the beaten track for most travelers, but well worth experiencing once in a lifetime for anyone of any age. Whether Yule logs, candles at midnight mass, or a trail of bonfires, the tradition of fire still pulls people tightly together as they knowingly or unknowingly participate in an age-old practice of pushing back fear by lighting up the longest night to celebrate another day.
Drone Footage from 2019
If they build it, they will burn it. The giant alligator went up in flames. Looking at the footage and the tents, the gator became the center of the Festival of the Bonfires. Due to COVID-19, this small festival is canceled for 2020, but not the normal levee fires.
Stop the footage at the 1:09 mark. Every brown tepee is a bonfire waiting for December 24th to burn.
The Traveling Mamas
This video shows the best on the ground content.
Aerial Footage from 2013
The best aerial view starts at about 1:03
Footage from 2018
*Pirogue-a small flat-bottomed boat designed to boat easily through the swamps. Today most are motorized, but some are still pole pushed. Very little of Louisiana waterways allow airboats.
**Batture-the alluvial land between the levee and the Mississippi river at low tide. That land is privately owned and most commonly by the individual owning the property on the other side of the levee.
***Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler-Cajun French for “Let the good times roll”
All bonfires are lit at 7:00 pm on December 24. Personal vehicles are welcome to drive along the river road, but some parts of the road may be blocked for safety reasons. People, wishing to walk along the top of the levee and view the fires up close, should plan to arrive early to secure a parking place. Some of the local organizations set up small concession stands, but per COVID-19, that may not happen for December 2020. The weather in December can vary, greatly; make sure to dress accordingly. Lutcher in St. James Parish falls about half way between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. For those staying in New Orleans, it is a 30-40 mile trip upriver.
For more information:
Bonfire History: http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/SFbonfires.html
Build your Bonfire: https://www.louisianatravel.com/blog/bonfires-levee-building-holiday-tradition
Roots of Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/news/prenons-du-bons-temps-say-what
Angela Lorio has been successfully living in both the 21st and 16th centuries since the mid 90’s. She has been a successful and award-winning educator for close to 30 years, teaching science at ALPHA Academy during the week, and educating the crowds at the Texas Renaissance Festival from the back of Sampson the Warhorse on the weekends. In her spare time, Angela writes, draws, sews, and follows her own Jedi path to light.