How is a Cajun Christmas Like Burning Man?

Article by: Andrew Goodwin

Fri December 19, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Louisiana is known for its vibrant festivals and cultural traditions. Every holiday seems to have a unique, only-in-Louisiana twist to it, and Christmas is no exception. For many people, Christmas Eve often conveys images of folks bundled up in sweaters, drinking egg-nog and sitting around a warm fire. In the Bayou State, families and friends who live along the river celebrate this joyous holiday by gathering on the levees, eating gumbo, watching fireworks, and sitting around a much, much bigger fire.

Tour Louisiana Blog

Photo by Tour Louisiana Blog

The tradition, like most in Louisiana, is likely rooted in European traditions and was brought over during the French colonization. Hundreds of homes that line the levees on Mississippi River will light bonfires that glow for miles. The most popular spots take place in the small riverside communities such as Gramercy and Lutcher, located in St. James Parish. It is also here where a number of the Plantations are located, such as Laura Plantation that hosts its own annual bonfire event each year. It is said that these bonfires were often started as ways for boats to find the different inlets of friends and family members homes that they wanted to visit during the holidays. However, local folklore suggests that they were used as a beacon to help Papa Noel (the Cajun Santa Claus) find his way to children’s homes to drop off their gifts. It should be noted that even Papa Noel is uniquely different from the traditional Santa and instead of being pulled by reindeers in a sled, Papa Noel is pulled downriver in a tiny wooden boat by his special alligators, led by Alphonse (the Cajun Rudolph). 

Chris Cox

Photo by Chris Cox

Today, much like Burning Man, the purpose of the bonfires is to bring people together to celebrate the communal joy of this tradition. Of course, it’s always fun to burn things too, so many families and neighbors will spend the weeks after Thanksgiving, leading up to Christmas Eve, constructing wooden, triangular shaped structures that resemble teepees. These beautiful structures, often made of willow trees, line the levee hills and can be upwards of 25 feet tall. Once the sun sets behind the mighty Mississippi and the sky darkens, the yuletide rejoicing begins. The pyres are lit and the beautiful spectacle glows along the Mississippi River. Fireworks brighten the sky and the glimmering collection of lights that reflects in the water is a beautiful site to witness. Families often gather in lawn chairs along the levee, but you can catch a number of spectators in their boats and on paddle boards with front row seats to watch the blazing inferno take place. 


Photo by Brett Duke/The Times-Picayune

Many families from cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge will make the pilgrimage down Highway 44, better known as the “River Road,” to witness the occasion. Thousands of visitors from all over the country flock here as well to bask in this warm Louisiana tradition. While it's not a New Year's celebration, and the bayou isn't exactly the Black Rock Desert, it can't be denied that like Burning Man, these bonfires are a symbolic way to close out the year, to say goodbye to the past, to clean the slate and welcome with open arms what is yet to come. If you plan on attending the event this year, be sure to come prepared with plenty of cheer and a whole lot of chestnuts!