Family bonfires keep a Cajun Christmas tradition going!

By Sarah Herndon

There are many indelible rites of passage in childhood; losing that first tooth or a secret crush in first grade. However, if you grew up in St. James Parish, you never forget building your first bonfire.

Jason Amato, a parish councilman from Lutcher, remembers when he was nine and he and his three brothers would walk through the woods, armed with cane knives and hatchets. They would cut willow trees for their bonfire and balance the logs on the handlebars of their bikes. Then, carefully walking them to their father’s waiting truck where the trees were hauled to the levee so that building could begin. And while most builders take pride in having their bonfire look symmetrically appealing to the eye, Jason admits that theirs was short and squat and most definitely the “ugliest bonfire on the levee.” He says that he is smarter over the years and now knows the exact number of logs needed to construct the massive 15-foot tepee structure. They are also using chainsaws and four wheelers which makes the work a little less arduous. “It’s funny, in St. James Parish you have several seasons- you’ve got Mardi Gras season, you’ve got hunting season, you’ve got football season and then you’ve got bonfire season,” Jason says.

The bonfire tradition originated in the river parishes of Louisiana (St. James, St. John and St. Charles) where Old World French and German colonists settled in the 1700s. While some say they were lit for midnight mass, Jamie Vicknair, current president of the Festival of the Bonfires Association, says the  colonists used them as signals to help guide ships along the Mississippi River. However, the most popular explanation of this Cajun tradition, especially to the young at heart, is that the bonfires light the way (over foggy bayous and rivers) for Papa Noel on Christmas Eve.

With the highest concentration of bonfires being in St. James and thinning out downriver in St. John, the Festival of the Bonfires Association issues an average of 130 bonfire building permits each year. The permit process was put in place to pay for insurance as well as to keep everyone safe. Jason, who helps to approve permits, remembers a time when there were no restrictions and bonfires precariously towered at 40 feet, some even burning tires. The height limit is now set at around 15 feet.

The bonfires are ignited at 7 pm sharp on Christmas Eve and all of the houses open their doors to family members and visitors who come from all over to experience this rural community’s tradition. Food covers everyone’s front porches and the smell of gumbo permeates the night air. “No one is a stranger. The residents of St. James Parish profoundly enjoy sharing their Christmas Eve tradition,” Jamie says.

Helping hands

Jared Deslatte, also from Lutcher, looks forward to this custom every year, hosting one of the bigger open houses with 200 to 300 people stopping in to visit or to eat a bowl of his red bean gumbo. He cannot imagine not living by the river and wants his three children to grow up with the same opportunities to be outdoors as he had as a kid. Even when they are not building bonfires, they are out on the levee throwing the football or sliding down the sides on cardboard. “It’s refreshing- kids being kids, riding their four wheelers. It’s good stuff,” Jared says.

His two oldest- Kendall, 7 and Kash, 5- are now at an age where they can help with the preparation and building of the family bonfire. Just as his dad did for him, Jared cuts small pieces of wood for his son, Kash, so that he can build his own four-foot bonfire on the levee. They burn it during the week while the grownups are busy constructing the Christmas Eve bonfire. Kendall has her job too, dragging some of the smaller logs back to the truck. “She’s not helping much, but she is doing her part,” Jared says, adding that it is more about hanging out and being together as a family.

Jason also remembers including his two daughters, Rayni and Randi, in the bonfire tradition when they were small. They would cut and haul logs right alongside their boy cousins. “We didn’t differentiate,” says Jason. “You were there to help build so put your gloves on, put your boots on and don’t wear any makeup because you don’t need it. We’re here to build bonfires.” His oldest daughter, Randi, now 26, was married last year but has still assisted every year with the bonfire build. When she started dating her future husband, she informed him that it would be best if he helped her father with the building to get in on his good side.

The Bourgeois family has had the same bonfire spot on the levee in Lutcher for 40 years- the first one- and before that, they were in Gramercy. They build their bonfire in one day, gathering up all available family and friends on a Saturday. “Bringing my whole family together, my whole Bourgeois family- we’ve got my aunts, uncles, cousins- that’s the only time that I see people throughout the year. They say it’s work but they love doing it and they get their kids involved also, that’s what I like,” says William “Bo” Bourgeois, who has two sons, Hunter, 26 and Chase, 29.

Beforehand, Bo will find the willow trees needed for the base and sides of the bonfire while others will gather driftwood for the “gut” or the inside of the structure. His brother-in-law has back issues so he cooks lunch for them, leaving no one out of the work day. When Bo’s boys were young, they would carry the logs or drive the fourwheeler but now they are able to cut down the trees with their father. After the bonfire is built, everyone fries fish and sits around the fire eating and “talking old times,” says Bo.

Jason sees the bonfires as not only a vibrant tradition in their community but also as a time to disconnect from screens and visit with family that only comes around once a year. “It keeps you grounded to a time where family and friends were the central focus,” Jason says.

Sarah Herndon is a local New Orleanian and freelance writer. She writes regularly for Nola Family magazine. Read Sarah’s article “Listen To Your (Kid’s) Gut!.

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