When they were kids, St. James Parish residents Jared Deslatte and Rudy Roussel would compete every year to see who could create the biggest, boldest bonfire on the levee on Christmas Eve.
“His family would build one, and I’d build one, and we’d always argue about whose was best,” Deslatte said with a laugh, wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his gloved hand.
Twenty years later, on Friday night, the best friends could be found in just about the same spot, doing the same thing — lugging whole trees in from the banks of the Mississippi River, cutting them up into pieces and fitting them together like giant Lincoln Logs.
These days, though, they work together rather than compete.
Deslatte, who now has a family of his own, is in charge of designing the annual “feu de joie.” For the past few years, he’s been the only resident of Lutcher permitted to build a structure different from the typical bonfire tower.
This year, the 27-year-old electrician is making a castle, as requested by his 4-year-old daughter, Kendall. Last year, it was a tank; the year before, a Jack Daniel’s bottle.
Even in the beginning stages, it’s obvious that his woodwork bucks tradition, sticking out in the skyline of dozens of tepee-shaped towers that can be seen popping up along River Road by mid-December.
In the grand scheme of things, however, Deslatte insists that not much has changed in this little neck of south Louisiana, where tradition reigns supreme.
His team is one of hundreds who have gotten permits to build and then burn down a row of bonfires that will stretch at least 5 miles long by Christmas Eve — a practice that has been going on in that parish for as long as anyone can remember.
“It’s just what we do here,” Deslatte said, leaning against a truck and soaking in late afternoon sun while on a break from hauling the willows up the side of the levee. “I did it with my grandpa, and my grandpa did it with my great-grandpa. It’s just what we grew up with, and now we want our kids to do the same thing.”
Labor of love
By Friday night, Deslatte and his team of six had spent hours chopping down trees, cutting them up and piecing them together in the shape of a castle.
He said, he’d spend three weekends working to build the final structure, designed to be at least 25 feet wide, 10 to 12 feet deep and at least 18 feet tall.
“Something like this takes a little longer,” Deslatte said, adding that a group of six to 12 men can get a traditional bonfire up “in a good weekend.”
Farther down the levee, however, 20-year-old Blake Laiche said he’d been working on his “traditional” bonfire since Thanksgiving and would be lucky to finish it by Sunday. Laiche was using chainsaws to cut trees 1.5 feet in diameter, as a group of friends helped place them together in the base of the tepee.
He added that while the task was labor-intensive, it’s nothing like it used to be, when families used axes to chop the wood.
The structures then would often be 40 feet high or taller, Laiche said, and they were stuffed with old car tires, scraps and anything that would make a good fire. Add gasoline, oil and fireworks, and the show was one that’s still reminisced about by residents who have attended the annual lighting party for generations.
More than a decade ago, the local fire department started regulating the bonfires, limiting them to 20 feet high by 24 feet wide. Citing environmental concerns, the department also restricted the materials to wood, which burns fast and is plentiful along the river.
Although the job is easier now, it’s still a labor of love, Laiche said — and one well worth it come Christmas Eve, when thousands will gather in St. James Parish to watch the structures be set afire at 7 p.m. A good bonfire, he added, will burn until at least 2 a.m., while spectators eat jambalaya and gumbo, drink beer and party with friends and strangers who’ve caught wind of the tradition over the years.
“You’ve got to keep it going for the next generation to be able to do it,” Laiche said.
A century in the making
The area of Louisiana known as the River Parishes, settled in the 1700s by French and German colonists, has long been known for bonfires, according to the St. James Parish Welcome Center in Gramercy.
Old letters show that bonfires were used for celebrations as early as 1865. Some say their light would help the faithful find their way to midnight Mass, while others say the tradition is Cajun in origin and was used to help the Cajun Santa Claus, Papa Noel, find his way along the river to deliver gifts.
By 1884, documents show, merchant George Bourgeois would collect wooden crates throughout the year and burn them on Christmas Eve in front of his New Camellia Plantation store. By the 1920s, other plantation owners had joined in, with families on the Welham Plantation using an anchored center pole, cane reeds, scrap wood and rubber tires.
Today’s bonfires still closely resemble those made by the plantation owners, with teepee shapes and wires holding the top together, according to families who gather along the river to keep the tradition alive.
Elaine Brach, a 70-year-old St. James Parish native who works at the visitors center, said the tradition snowballed over the years. Now, the once-quiet River Road turns into a giant party every December.
“It brings a lot of attention to the area,” Brach said. “It’s unreal.”
Festival of the Bonfires
On Friday, bonfire-building wasn’t the only thing keeping the otherwise sleepy town of Lutcher buzzing. Residents and tourists alike were celebrating the 25th anniversary of a newer tradition — the Festival of the Bonfires, a weekendlong party and prelude to the big event on Christmas Eve.
While some families cut down trees and piled the pieces together along the levee, others could be found a few minutes away in town, splashing final spices into gumbo pots before the deadline to enter the parish’s annual cook-off.
Considered a “signature event” of the festival, the gumbo cook-off featured a record 70 recipes Friday night, as a line stretched more than 100 people deep by 6:30 p.m. to sample the entries at Lutcher Recreation Park on La. 3193.
Ingredients included poultry, seafood and the red bean gumbo unique to St. James Parish. Teams of families and friends worked together to create the flavorful concoctions, while city officials and other judges were given the enviable task of tasting them.
“We put a lot of hard work and effort into ours,” said 25-year-old electrician Adam Keller, who took a minute to sip beer while his friend cracked raw eggs into boiling red bean gumbo. “Eggs go into our gumbo, and we also smoke our own turkey necks, use homemade andouille sausage and, of course, Blue Runner red beans.”
Just a few feet away, Mickey Bourgeois was busy at another booth. The 53-year-old, who worked at an oil refinery, used hen, oyster liquor and other “secret ingredients” from a recipe passed down in his family.
“I make my gumbo just like my mama taught me 40 years ago, and she was the best gumbo maker I ever knew,” Bourgeois said, grinning.
Larry Roussel, co-chairman of the cook-off, said Friday was the best day to attend the three-day festival, which also offered live music, a children’s pageant, a gingerbread house contest and a mini-country fair with amusement rides and games.
Paying for insurance
Locals also planned to light one small bonfire on the levee every night of the festival at 7 p.m., as a sort of sample show before the big one on Christmas Eve.
According to Rhonda Lee, the festival supervisor, the event began as a way both to bring attention to the Christmas Eve bonfires and to help pay the insurance policy for the roughly 1,300 bonfire builders who team together to erect an average of 110 structures ready for torching.
“It’s gonna be packed,” the 56-year-old said as she watched people file into line to taste the different gumbos Friday night. “It’s the only festival the parish has.”
About an hour later, dozens had gathered on the levee to see the first parish bonfire of the season.
In the crowd was Prairieville resident Gina Spansel, who brought her 7-year-old son Dylan with her. Like many others, Spansel has trouble getting to Lutcher the night before Christmas, so she decided to attend on Friday instead.
Friday’s crowd was nothing compared to the one anticipated for Christmas Eve, said Lee, who’s been working in the parish for 22 years. She said it’s not uncommon to see thousands gather and more than 20 charter buses pull up with tourists from all over the world as the River Road fires burn bright.
That’s because, as Lutcher firefighter chief Jason Amato put it, the joy the tradition brings the community is contagious.
“There’s a lot of pride, but there’s also a lot of enjoyment,” Amato said. “Especially when you see someone come for the first time to see all the excitement.”