There are many colorfully imaginative traditions dating back to the earliest Cajun settlers of the regions of southern Louisiana to the west and north of New Orleans. One of them is the lighting of the bonfires along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve.
These bonfires, erected on the river levees by the keepers of this old tradition, are intended to light the way for “Papa Noël,” the Cajun Santa Claus, on his airborne journey to the area. Or, according to some sources, the bonfires may have also been a way of lighting the path to the nearest Catholic church for Midnight Mass.
The earliest bonfires on the levees were relatively simple in design and assembly, with long logs arranged into a pyramid-shaped cone, some as high as twenty feet. Shorter horizontal logs holding the structure in place gave it a ladder-like appearance. Most of today’s bonfires still incorporate that design, but more imaginative creations have since evolved. Some of the most elaborate structures resemble old Cajun cabins, pickup trucks and other indigenous cultural motifs.
At dusk, usually around 7:00 p.m., the structures are doused with flammable liquids and set ablaze, lighting the sky and the surrounding area with towering flames that would be impossible for Papa Noël and his reindeer to miss. The crowds that gather to watch these spectacular conflagrations enjoy a free show and, in some locales, free bowls of hot gumbo are served up by local residents. The blazes are often accompanied by displays of fireworks, set off by the fires themselves.
The site is on the west bank of New Orleans, near a bend in the river directly opposite the French Quarter. It can be viewed from the Moonwalk adjacent to Woldenberg Riverfront Park or from Algiers Point itself. The Canal Street-Algiers Point Ferry carries passengers from downtown New Orleans to the vicinity of the bonfire site.