More than 100 brilliantly burning bonfires are expected to light the levee along the Mississippi River in Ascension, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes on Christmas Eve.
Tradition says the fiery structures light the way for Papa Noel, but there also will be thousands of spectators that night for an experience that seems to draw a bigger crowd every year.
So, out of safety concerns, authorities are taking 5 feet off the permitted height of the bonfires this year, bringing the log structures wrapped with quick-burning cane reeds down from 20 feet to 15 feet.
Local bonfire makers aren’t delighted with the shorter limit but are taking it in stride.
“I don’t like it. We’re used to making them 20 feet for the last 10 to 15 years,” said Bo Billy Bourgeois, a Paulina resident who’s been involved with his family in building Christmas bonfires for “as long as I could walk, probably.” Back in the day, he said, bonfires were as much as 40 feet to 50 feet high.
“You can’t be too mad, though,” Bourgeois, 50, added with a laugh. “We’re still doing it this year.”
Over time, the bonfire structures have gone from heights of 40 feet or more in decades past — when the Christmas Eve event was quieter and more local — to limits of 28 feet, then 25 feet in the 1980s.
The 20-foot height limit went into effect about 2000.
The new, 15-foot restriction came after potentially dangerous incidents last year and the year before, said Monica Salins, executive director of the Pontchartrain Levee District, which is responsible for the levees in a six-parish area that includes those with the bonfire tradition.
A few times in the past two years, “a very heated log rolled down the levee” a short distance after breaking away from a bonfire, said Salins, who witnessed one of the incidents.
Nobody was harmed and the runaway log in each case was quickly stopped by adults tending the fire, but a lower height would make such events more manageable, Salins said.
“It’s in the interest of public safety,” she said. “When (the bonfires) get that high, as they burn and fall in, (15 feet) is a better size.”
The new restriction, issued by the Levee Board for Ascension, St. James and St. John parishes, was arrived at after a meeting held yearly by area officials before the start of the bonfire season, Salins said.
“It was a consensus on how to successfully continue a Christmastime tradition,” said Jason Amato, Lutcher fire chief and St. James Parish councilman and longtime volunteer with the bonfire event.
The 15-foot limit also applies to nontraditional bonfires, built in fanciful designs that in the past have included little plantation homes and the letters LSU.
Bonfire builders must be permitted by the Festival of Bonfires Inc., a St. James Parish-based organization that organizes a three-day festival earlier in December, this year falling on Dec. 11-13, at the Lutcher Recreational Park on La. 3193.
Two weeks after the festival, on Christmas Eve, people come out again for the bonfires on the levee, said Rhonda Lee, president of the Festival of Bonfires.
“It’s thousands (of people). It’s just unreal … like a little Mardi Gras,” she said.
The majority of the traditional bonfires — which must be at least 100 feet apart — line the levee from Gramercy to Convent in St. James Parish.
Builders start with a center pole set 2 feet into the ground on the top of the levee.
With the help of a ladder, they add four other poles, slanted in, teepee-style, and the logs are nailed to a cross-piece of lumber at the top, which also is wired together.
Next, logs are brought in and laid, in a log-cabin look, around the four sides of the structure and trimmed to make a neat silhouette.
The interior of each structure is filled with wood, and, about a week before Christmas Eve, the outside is covered with cane reeds, wired in place.
Construction typically begins the week before Thanksgiving and must be finished by noon on Christmas Eve.
The bonfires are lit at 7 p.m., and the event ends about 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. so firefighters and other officers on duty can go home and enjoy their Christmas Eve.
Dustin “Dut” Montelius, 29, of Gramercy — who in past years has, with a buddy, won a gumbo cook-off that’s part of the bonfire festival — said he hopes the bonfire tradition can continue.
“I truly think it makes our parish unique,” said Montelius, who’s been building Christmas Eve bonfires for several years with his family and friends.
Mahlon Poché, a 76-year-old Lutcher resident who’s grown up in the bonfire tradition, said he doesn’t think the height limit “is going to make a whole lot of difference.”
“We use the whole width of the crown of the levee” around 12 feet, Poché said.
“The appearance of it won’t be quite as slender. It will appear a little fatter, more round,” Poché said of the look of this year’s bonfires before they’re lit.
But, he added, “it won’t change the outcome of it at all.”