Whenever I find myself in the environs of Baton Rouge on Christmas Eve, I head south on a little excursion on River Road following the levee on the east bank of the Mississippi River towards New Orleans. My destination is St.James Parish, some 20 to 30 miles upriver from New Orleans. St.James Parish is home to the communities of Lutcher, Gramercy, and Paulina. I’ve spent a lot of time in this area during my college years, so this is a special place for me.
Even before I get to my final stop I look up toward the top of the levee and see wooden structures shaped like a pyramid, some 20 to 30 feet in height. The cross beams in the structure giving it the appearance of a ladder. Other neighboring parishes, Ascension and St.John the Baptist also have these wooden edifices, but none hold to this tradition as passionate as St.James Parish, counting at least 100 such structures built and all will soon be set ablaze to guide Papa Noel, on his annual Christmas Eve run to deliver presents to all who are children at heart.
The ancient Europeans used bonfires as celebrations for a bountiful harvest. Meanwhile, the Celts used a form of this for the coming of the winter solstice. Undoubtedly the early settlers to the new world brought their traditions with them. Before there were levees people lit fires in the recesses on the river bank to guide shipmates coming home for Christmas. With the levee’s built, bonfires were lit to guide early Catholics to high mass at midnight on Christmas Eve up and down the river. Between 1880 and 1900 French settlers of European descent continued a tradition they brought with them from their native country, of lighting bonfires on religious holidays. This emerged into a multitude of bonfires exclusively on Christmas Eve lighting the way for Papa Noel and his sleigh.
Starting around Thanksgiving break you will see kids, young and old gathering wood, much of it from the banks of the river. Some of it stored away throughout the year and still some hauled in from other locations, just for the purpose of building these wooden structures. On Christmas Eve at 7:00 PM having been doused with kerosene and lighter fluid, the bonfires are lit, the night sky suddenly coming alive with streaks of color against the dark skies and the smell of wood burning into the cold humid air; like natures personal fireplace. Multitudes of people come to watch, some bring food and drink while others simply watch and take in the spirit of the season. Still others stay in their cars driving up and down the river road.
It’s said that as Papa Noel leaves Baton Rouge he can see the river lit up with a hundred or so bonfires, he now knows he has safe passage down river. Lower in altitude, he flies a little closer to feel the warmth of the fire where the earth and sky meet as one in a heavenly dance. And just maybe Papa Noel will partake in a bowl of gumbo or two.
You may ask, what is this all about? It’s an eternal story as much about the season as any other. Burning off the old and out of the ashes comes the new as fire is redemptive, just as the season brings longer days and the birth of a child.
Lagniappe (something extra)
Heading downriver to New Orleans a peculiar thing happens on this night according to the Nation Weather Service. Every Christmas Eve winds out of the east rush out from the Ponchartrain heading west toward the crescent in the river in downtown New Orleans pushing onward to the mouth of the river. Witnesses say you can feel the wind pick up as though it were going right through you.
Legend has it that Papa Noel leaves New Orleans from this very crescent in the river with these prevailing winds surrounding his sleigh and guides it downriver to the Gulf of Mexico and all points south.
Do you believe? I know I do.
©jc2015 thx lb