In St. James Parish, bonfires light the way to a strong community

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LUTCHER, La. (WGNO) - Lowell Roussel could write the book on bonfire building. He's spent decades turning wood and wire into towering structures that add to the Christmas Eve wonder every year in St. James Parish.

The tradition is so important to him that he did everything he could to purchase his father's home, which sits in sight of the Roussel family bonfire location.

"I tell people, for Christmas Eve, there's nothing commercial about it. It's sort of like Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is put on by people. This is put on by people," he smiles, putting the finishing touches on his 14-foot bonfire structure, made of willow, wire and pieces of an oak tree that fell in his mother's yard during the summer.

Roussel's son, son-in-law, grandson and a few friends helped with this year's wooden tower. Roussel remembers when the bonfires could be as tall as you could build them -- but today the height limit is 15 feet. He also remembers when folks would fill them with tires that would burn for weeks.

"We didn't have pick-ups, we didn't have chainsaws; we used hatchets and cane knives -- that's all we had. But, we could start on November first, so we had two full months to do that," says Roussel.

Nowadays, bonfire season starts mid-to-late November, around Thanksgiving, when permits are sold for $30 each.

Roussel says most builders use willow for their structures, because it's a "nuisance" tree that grows straight, burns well and is light to carry.

Most bonfires are built in a "tee-pee" style, but there are other shapes. In previous years, people have created steamboat-shaped bonfires and bonfires shaped in the letters "L-S-U."

After 9/11, and again after Katrina, Councilman Jason Amato says patriotic themes and American flags were everywhere on the levee, with bonfires honoring first responders and showing support for survivors.  Themed bonfires generally reflect major events from the year that's about to end -- and it's not always tragic events -- when the Saints won the Super Bowl, there was a lot of celebrating via the Christmas Eve bonfires. Amato says he's certain all the builders would be thrilled to honor the Saints again.

This year, be on the lookout for a bonfire shaped like a boat! Amato says one family is building it as a tribute to the Cajun Navy, as a special "thank you" for all the rescues that happened during the August flooding.

The bonfires will be lit at 7 p.m. sharp on Christmas Eve.

For the Christmas Eve events on the levee, locals suggest getting there around 4 p.m., so you have time to walk along the levee and take in the sights before it gets dark. Bring some snacks.