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Alight Christmas: Bonfires Beckon in St. James Parish
Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River represent deep tradition for some Louisiana families, though for others making the trip to experience this amazing spectacle can be tricky. Family obligations and other traditions on Christmas Eve might preclude a road trip, even a short one. But it’s worth the effort, and with just a little advance planning — to put the in-laws on notice perhaps, or to organize a group for the outing — it can turn into an unforgettable part of your holiday.
I devoted a whole chapter of Louisiana Rambles to the riverfront bonfires, which includes an account of its origins and history (sales pitch: makes a great gift! Buy the book at your favorite local book shop or online).
*But, for now, here are some of the basics you need to know in order to plan an outing. *
The nexus for Christmas Eve bonfires in south Louisiana is the contiguous riverfront towns of Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina, all in St. James Parish, which sits about halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. From New Orleans, the trip takes about 45 minutes each way.
When pulling into these towns, expect bedlam. All the action happens along the River Road (Highway 44), and that two-lane stretch is packed with people driving by and walking around. On the levee top, you’ll find one log pyre after the next, watched over by the families that built them and their friends and relatives who come out to party with them for the event. It all looks like a tailgating scene with people cooking out and tending coolers around their pyres. Meanwhile, just about everyone who lives along the River Road seems to be having a bonfire party, in the same way that people who live along the New Orleans parade route have Endymion or Bacchus parties. Fireworks will be snapping here and there, a prelude to the huge amounts of them they will go off once the bonfires are lit.
The towns of Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina follow the old plantation property lines, so these three towns are long and narrow, stretching back from the river where each has a relatively small foothold. This means you can walk between them easily.
The bonfires are lit at 7 p.m. They’ll burn for hours, but for the most dramatic effect be sure to get there in time to see the bonfires igniting, which is when the fireworks reach their peak barrage and the excitement is at its fullest.
Local restaurants and bars are open for those not attending the many nearby house parties, but I found the best-equipped visitors had packed their own refreshments for the evening. *My advice is to pack for an evening picnic, find a bare spot on the levee – one not directly beneath a bonfire, since burning logs tend to roll loose – and enjoy an evening holiday light show like no other. *