If you’ve ever fallen under the spell of a campfire at dusk, you’ll never forget the magic that it weaves. Tongues of flame dance in the darkness, sparks rise, and wood crackles and hisses as it burns.
But can you imagine bonfires twenty feet tall burning along a forty-mile stretch of the Mississippi River? That’s what happens along the Old River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, every Christmas Eve. While the rest of us are preparing for other Christmas traditions, the people who lived around the levees between those two cities are putting the final touches on their piles of wood, waiting for the signal to set them on fire.
How did the custom get started? Ask that question of the people involved and you’ll get several different answers. One tradition is that the settlers brought the custom from France and Germany. Villagers there used fire to signal their friendship across the miles.
Another is that the fires were first used to light the way for those who traveled long distances along the murky river to church on Christmas Eve.
Then there’s the legend that those first fires were set to guide Papa Noel, as the Creole-Acadians call Santa, to homes along the river. Any of these explanations is good enough to keep the custom alive and well in Cajun country.
The bonfire makers start building their stack during the Thanksgiving holidays. First they put together a framework like a teepee. Then from time to time until Christmas they pack good burning materials around the frame. They use driftwood, saplings, canes, and bamboo to make sure that the fire will burn well.
Some of the builders have made their woodpiles in the shapes of log cabins or ships; others stack the wood in piles twenty feet high. As the stacks grow in the weeks before Christmas, children play touch football in their shadows and bicyclists ride among them.
These fire builders are well aware of the danger involved, and they are very careful to keep the bonfires safe. There are special regulations for the occasion, and no one breaks the rules. A fire truck patrols the area during the burning, and no fires are lit until a signal is given by the firemen.
Once that signal comes at dusk on Christmas Eve, the scene bursts into action and noise. As the fires flare up, the material inside the teepees explodes like firecrackers.
The celebrating crowds are treated to a sight of Santa riding on the fire truck, and everyone knows that when the “Fires of Joy” are burning, it’s Christmas at last on the Old River Road in Louisiana.