RIVER PARISHES OF SOUTH LOUISIANA– Centuries ago in 1721, Germans made a home along the Mississippi River in South Louisiana and a tradition of lighting bonfires along the levy began. Over the years, plantation owners would use bonfires to light the way towards churches for midnight mass, as the enslaved Africans would light bonfires to celebrate the end of a labor intensive sugarcane harvest season. Today, the tradition has grown into a world-renown heralding of the Christmas season.
Buddy Boe is the Executive Director of River Parishes Tourist Commission and says, “people build them on top of the levies as a way to light the sky for Papa Noel on Christmas Eve. Every year, after Thanksgiving, it’s the kick off of bonfire season. Multiple generations of families start cutting the wood. There’s sounds, noise, explosions and pots of gumbo everywhere!”
It’s quite a spectacle of holiday tidings, as both sides of the river for ten miles are lit up by over 200 bonfire structures ablaze. The modern tradition is that the lighting helps Santa Claus, find his way to the children of the swamps and bayous, where he doesn’t use his reindeer, but instead, employs alligators to navigate the terrain.
Père Noël or Papa Noel was gift bringer back in Europe which accounts can date back to a Turkish monk in the year 280 AD, known as the patron saint of children. Every French-speaking territory has their own tale to tell and Louisiana is no different. The main story is that on Christmas Eve, children leave their shoes by the fireplace filled with treats for the steed of Papa Noel and if the child was good, Papa Noel would leave gifts in the form of candy, money or toys. In South Louisiana, Papa Noel arrives in a pirogue towed by eight alligators.
Every year, the River Parishes Tourist Commission unveils a new elaborate bonfire structure sculpture. For 2020, a 50 foot alligator named “Saint” is the reincarnation of a 78 foot alligator from 2019 and the lone representative of bonfire country.
“Out here in Cajun countries those reindeer quickly become alligators when he goes south of Interstate 10,” says Boe.
However this year, it’s fiery Christmas spirit that will light the way for Santa Claus (Papa Noel) instead of bonfires.
“Saint the alligator represents the keeping of tradition, even though the bonfires are not happening this year because of the coronavirus. Our public officials made that tough decision, working with the state to cancel it this year, but we know that it will be back next year stronger than ever and Saint will be here everyday reminding people, and inviting them to experience all that is the river parishes,” says Boe.
In leu of bonfires, the public can still drive down by the River Parishes Tourist Commission office on Airline Boulevard in Laplace to see “Saint” the alligator. To learn more about the tradition, click here.