NOLA Christmas Eve Bonfire Festival


If you are looking for a unique holiday experience, consider a road trip down to Cajun Country for what is sure to be a Christmas you will never forget. New Orleans Plantation Country is steeped in history that blends the old and new worlds in a way no other place can. For hundreds of years, the citizens of southern Louisiana have been lighting the way for Papa Noel on Christmas Even with their annual bonfire festival. 


Jennifer and I had booked a cottage at the historic Oak Alley Plantation for the Christmas holiday, just across the river from the communities of Lutcher and Gramercy, which are at the heart of the levee bonfire festival. We headed over early in the morning to watch as family and friends gathered to build their bonfires, decorate their yards, and prepare for the night's feasts. As we made our way down the levee and chatted with people we found ourselves with several invitations to dinner parties, BBQs, and bonfire tailgates. It was hard to decline so many invitations by the very welcoming members of the community. But, we had already been invited to the home of  Buddy Boe, who is the executive director of the tourism board and was born and raised on the Mississippi.

Stephan Keller, master bonfire builder
We made our way over Creole Sugarland Tours to learn more about the history of the bonfire festival from master bonfire builder Stephan Keller, who has been building bonfires on the levees since he was a child. The most common bonfires are a traditional pyramid of logs, Stephan has several on display at his shop in Vacherie, LA. 

Bonfires are a big part of the culture here, it's about family and friends. It is about a sense of community. They say that it started to light the way for parishioners going to midnight mass, but we were always told it was to light the way for Papa Noel.
Stephan Keller

Over the years bonfire building became a bit of a competition among neighbors some growing higher than 20 feet tall. Today bonfires are capped at a maximum height of 15 feet for public safety, however, bonfire builders are always getting creative with different themes and the addition of colorful fireworks to make their bonfire stand out. Many of the plantations and hotels along the river host their own private bonfire parties, which often hire builders like Stephan to create the perfect bonfire for them. 


As the sunset, we headed to Buddy Boe's for traditional gumbo and drinks before heading to the levees to watch the bonfires be lit. The crowd is excited as each one is set ablaze, the flames can be seen stretching more miles. Fireworks explode hundreds of feet in the air, reflecting on the river below as an old-style paddle steamer, decks packed with people, makes its way upriver. Every house along the levee is hosting a party and open parking lots are turned into tailgate zones filled with holiday revelers.


As the fires burn down, the crowds slowly start to dissipate, people return home to fall asleep so they can awake the next morning to see what Papa Noel has brought them. We head back to our car and drive to the other side of the river to our little cottage, we talk about the community, our new friends, and how we can't wait to come back to plantation country. 

If you would like to plan your Christmas trip to plantation country, click here.

5 Comments

  1. Those pictures are CRAZY! Especially the before ones. Look how perfectly those logs are stacked together. I loved bonfires when I was little but we don't have many here in AZ or we would burn everything down. LOL

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  2. I have never heard of the New Orleans bonfire festival before. This looks like an amazing Christmas ritual!

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  3. What an interesting and fun event! I would love to make the trip to see this in person one day and to feel the atmosphere you have described here.

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  4. Now this is certainly interesting. I did not know anything like this exists and in one of my favorite places to be.

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  5. Looking at that picutre, it seems like there are a lot of bonfires! It must have been exciting but a little scary. I had never heard about this tradition before. Thanks for sharing!

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