Many pages would be required to relate the stories concerning Christmas Eve levee bonfires in St. James Parish, Louisiana. This is merely an attempt to bring to the reader some history of a custom which has experienced a phenomenal growth in recent decades.
Once few in number, the local bonfires were originally a neighborhood or family oriented activity. Now they line the levee for miles and attract thousands of visitors. Neighboring Ascension and St. John the Baptist Parishes have a scattering of Christmas Eve bonfires, but by far the greatest concentration is in the St. James Parish communities of Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina.
The event has had local and national television coverage and has been featured in metropolitan newspapers and magazines. The pre-Christmas open house of the Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department and the Lutcher Festival of the Bonfires draw many people to the area in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve.
Through the years, there has been and intermingling of facts and fantasies concerning the origin of the bonfire tradition. In an effort to determine the history and development of this unique practice, a part of our research has included personal interviews with some of the oldest living residents of the area. A few of their recollections are included here.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a bonfire as “a large fire built in the open air”, a word derived from the Middle English bone fire—a fire of bones. More to our purpose, other sources define a bonfire as “a festive fire” or a “contribution fire” that is, a fire to which everyone in the neighborhood contributes a certain portion of material.
There is little doubt that the local bonfires along the River Road meet the definition of a “contribution fire”. In the weeks following Thanksgiving, the levee is alive with activity as scores of young people work together, contributing labor and material to create the masterpieces that will be ignited on Christmas Eve.
Weather permitting, fire chiefs give the signal at 7 o’clock, and St. James Parish residents simultaneously set a torch to their bonfires, re-enacting a fire ritual long-performed by their early European ancestors.
Bonfires In Europe
In observations made centuries apart, several European writers concluded that bonfires still constructed in certain parts of Europe are the outgrowth of an ancient Celtic custom of building large ceremonial fires to honor the sun.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, the British Isles and Gaul (France) were inhabited by the Celts whose powerful religious leaders, the Druids, had the sun as their principle object of worship. To pay homage to this great source of power and light, fires were built at the time of the winter and summer solstices. The Celts were dependent on farming for their tribal livelihood and believed that the fires would hasten the return of Spring and prolong the days of Summer.