On an unusually warm December day, members of the Duplessis and Laiche families gathered in the sprawling field between their Gonzales homes to add a handmade flag with the name “Charlaine” scrawled across it to the top of a large carousel made of wooden logs and brush.
The structure took more than a month to build. And less than a week after erecting it, they plan to set their creation ablaze as part of the families' annual New Year's Eve bonfire.
“This is the earliest we’ve ever had one finished,” Adrian Laiche noted. “Usually they’re putting finishing touches two hours before we light it.”
A family tradition 21 years in the making, the end-of-year celebration started as a way to honor a cousin and brother, Luke Villar, who was killed in 2001 during an armed robbery in St. Amant. He was 18.
Since then, the crew has made local headlines nearly every holiday season for their creative — and ambitious — structures that often double as a way to commemorate a current event from the past year.
In 2016, they built an airboat to commemorate the state’s historic floods. Last year, they celebrated the end of a tumultuous 2020 with a dumpster fire. In other years, they’ve constructed a helicopter, a model of Tiger Stadium, a space shuttle and even a replica of the crane-damaged Sunshine Bridge.
This year, they honored Luke’s mother, Charlaine Villar, who died in August, with the life-size wooden carousel made with debris left behind by Hurricane Ida. The family described it as their most detailed project yet, featuring three wooden horses decked out in red, green and white paint with Mardi Gras beads for reins and brush tails spray-painted gold.
For the family members, who explained that Villar loved carousels and collected miniature versions of them to display in her home, this year’s bonfire will feel particularly special.
“I would say this is full-circle,” Laiche’s cousin Chris Duplessis said. “What started this was a tribute to a family member, her son, it brought us together and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Planning for the structures doesn’t usually start until after Thanksgiving. The family begins by brainstorming ideas, usually drawing inspiration from current events. Once they settle on a choice, one family member draws up a design and the rest get to work pulling together materials and making the design a reality.
Despite all the effort that goes into creating the structures, Laiche said it’s not as difficult as some might think to set them on alight on New Year's Eve.
“This (year) was the most the women ever helped, really. The guys cut out the horses and put them together, and we decorated and painted,” she said. “My aunt, who’s very creative, had all these ideas of how to do things, and we were playing with things and gluing and stapling and cutting and doing all of this … and she finally said ‘now I understand how y’all burn it. You’re just so tired trying to figure it out, you just say, burn it all!’”
The family’s large-scale log creations, coupled with their meticulous attention to detail, has long attracted attention from curious passersby, many of whom stop after catching a glimpse of the structures from the main highway.
The structures have become so popular in recent years that Laiche has set up a Facebook page — Laissez les bon temps brûler, or “Let the good times burn” — where people can view pictures from bonfires past.
“We try to make people turn into our driveway because sometimes they just stop on the road,” Laiche said. “There are so many accidents here we’re just like, ‘pull in the driveway!’”
The cousins, most of whom are now in their 40s, say they look forward to passing on the tradition to the next generation. Some added that they gifted their own children with tools this Christmas.
“It’s a collaborative effort of three generations, for sure,” Duplessis said.
Though never easy and often chaotic, he added, “it’s always worth it.”