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NOLA Traditions: Smoke on the water — and bonfires on the levee

Bonfire on the Mississippi River levee near Gramercy, Christmas Eve 2011 (Photo by Glenn Abbott)

Ah, the unmistakable scents of Christmas: peppermint candy canes, pine needles, gingerbread, and kerosene.

Wait … what?

For a Louisianan, that may not be so far-fetched. Every Christmas Eve, along the levees up and down the Mississippi River, a holiday tradition thrives. At 7 p.m., the riverbanks blaze with bonfires; 20-foot-tall log towers burn and fireworks crackle to welcome the holiday. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, groups and families erect the towers, some quite elaborate, all destined to go up in a blaze of glory. The logs are soaked in kerosene or lighter fluid to aid combustion; that accounts for the strong scent that permeates the pre-Christmas air.

Explanations for the tradition’s Louisiana beginnings vary. The “River Parishes” — St. James, St. John the Baptist, and St. Charles — were settled in the early 1700s by French and German immigrants, who brought with them the European traditions of bonfires during summer and winter solstices. Few records exist of 1700s bonfires, but by the mid-1800s the tradition had hit full stride. According to Cajun lore, the fires were lit to guide Papa Noel on his appointed rounds, or to light the way to Midnight Mass.

As a recent transplant to New Orleans, I was completely blown away by this year’s bonfires. My wife and I arrived in Gramercy, about 45 minutes west of New Orleans, before dark and strolled the riverbank, admiring the handiwork and watching the last-minute preparations. One of the more impressive structures was built in the form of a giant 4-by-4 — maybe this is a Cajun Cadillac?

As the skies darkened and the 7 o’clock hour approached, crowds and anticipation grew. At the hour’s arrival, the wooden kerosene-drenched pyres, many festooned with firecrackers, erupted in flames and loud crackling sounds filled the air — a cacophonous combination of smoke, flame, and noise. For at least a solid hour, aerial fireworks exploded in the sky, providing a thrilling backdrop to the flaming pyres.

All I can say is “Wow.” And “Wow” again.

Christmas in Louisiana is pretty darn cool, kerosene and all.


Thanks to the following online source I used for background information:

Glen Abbott is a New Orleans-based freelance travel writer/photographer. Visit his blog at



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