Destinations all over the globe celebrate this time of year according to the local culture. Here in Louisiana, we light the way for Papa Noel on Christmas Eve with the tradition of bonfires on the levee. There are two versions of how this tradition started, but no matter the origins, this is a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas Eve and being part of a community.
A few years ago, on Christmas Eve, I loaded up the kids and brought some out of town relatives to witness the lighting of the bonfires along the Mississippi River. It was such a magical evening and even brought tears to my eyes to see so many different people from south Louisiana gather together, sharing their food and their music with anyone who was there. My aunt who was visiting from Louisiana gave me a hug towards the end of the evening and whispered in my ear, “This is the best Christmas Eve ever. I’ve wanted to do this my whole life!”
We spent our Christmas Eve walking along the levee during sunset waiting for the lighting. At 7PM the first bonfire was lit, with each one following one by one for miles along the Mississippi River. Fireworks lit up the sky behind the bonfires, various types of music began to play, with strains of hip hop to zydeco on the wind. We enjoyed hot bowls of gumbo purchased from a church tent and also authentic crawfish balls (the stuffing of crawfish bisque, without the shell).
You don’t have to spend your entire evening at the bonfires. Many families with little ones or those that have mobility challenges opt for a slow drive along the river road, from one end of the bonfires to the other. Since my children are now older, we opted to spend the entire evening at the levee. Here are a few tips if you plan on attending the lighting of the bonfires on the levee of the Mississippi River:
Dress for the Weather – The weather in Louisiana changes from day to day. One day you might be wearing shorts and the next day there could be a hard freeze. Last year it was pretty chilly at Christmastime and we made sure to wear our gloves and hats. This year you might need a raincoat. Keep in mind that the levee is windy.
Get there early – If you are parking and spending the evening, you’ll want to get to the area by 4:30 and before the sun goes down so that you can see what’s around where you decide to park. Also, make sure you have a means of egress for your vehicle or you may find yourself blocked in and stuck longer than you planned. Be sure to check out our driving directions for Louisiana Christmas Eve Bonfires.
Have a Picnic – Many people who live along the levee near the bonfires will have private house parties for friends and family. There will be a few churches and food trucks dotted along the river road, but be sure to pack yourself drinks and snacks to last through the evening, just in case. We made a gallon of adult beverages for my aunt and I, while the kids enjoyed soft drinks. We also brought along a few blankets to spread out in the field near our vehicle so that we could observe the bonfires while we ate.
Bring some cash – If you decide to purchase some of the homemade goodies to nosh on while at the levee, cash in small bills will get you fed.
Bathrooms are few and far between – There aren’t really any bathrooms, so be sure to keep this in mind. My aunt and I did find one Port-O-Potty as we walked along the river road, but it was dark. This would be a good reason to have a pocket flash light with you.
Watch your step, pack a flashlight – It’s dark along the levees, even with the bonfires lighting the way for Papa Noel. If you plan on walking around, the levees are steep and there might be hidden holes here and there. Be sure to access the levee from a gravel drive where everyone else is walking. If you decided to walk down the levee, make sure gravity doesn’t get the best of you. Take baby steps and don’t let your kids run.
Pack your camera – You don’t want to miss the chance to take a family photo with all the bonfires along the levee. Be sure to do this right before sunset when the sky turns so many beautiful colors and the light is still good.
Be respectful – If you aren’t from around Louisiana, you may not know that many of these bonfires have been built by the same families for generations. Everyone is nice, no matter what they look like or how they are dressed. The builders of the bonfires are proud of each of their creations, and they spend up to a month building these with their own time and their own money. Stop and talk with the people at each bonfire. Thank them for providing this free and beautiful way to celebrate Christmas Eve.
Enjoy the moment – Christmas is different for everyone. If you get the chance to attend the Festival of the Bonfires, be sure to stop for a moment of reflection.
Have you ever been to the Bonfires on the Levee? What are some of your tips? If no, is it on your bucket list?