To talk with folks building bonfires along the levee the week before Christmas is to understand what outlasts the gifts under the tree.
The building of the teepee-like structures along the Mississippi River in St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes celebrates an old tale in which the fires would help light the way for Papa Noel. But in reality it's an act steeped in family, togetherness and tradition.
“It’s probably one of the best times of the year,” said Joshua Weidert, letting a note of nostalgia creep into his voice as he describes the last three months spent designing and constructing a bonfire with friends and family.
Weidert has been involved in levee bonfires since he could walk, adding logs to the pile with his parents as a child, and his parents having done the same before him.
Dozens of bonfires line the levee in Lutcher, Gramercy, and Paulina, Louisiana in the so-called bonfire capital of the world on Dec. 24, 2017.…
A little farther north on the river are Jaumall Joseph and Carnell Turner, cousins who braved a recent cold, rainy morning to put the finishing touches on their structure so they could shield it from the impending rain.
They, too, can’t remember a Christmas Eve not spent at the levee, grilling with family and welcoming passersby to an event Joseph describes as like being “at an LSU-Alabama tailgate.”
“First it was me and my brother and the whole family (who would build the bonfires), then I branched off by myself probably the last 10 years or so,” Joseph said. “I’m busy now. I barely have the time to come up here and get it finished. But I make the time for this, it’s a really great event. It's just about being together.”
This Christmas season will see between 120 and 130 bonfires blazing in St. James and St. John parishes, according to Festival of the Bonfires president Jamie Vicknair.
Most structures are now complete, and boast odes to Drew Brees, religion, and the Grinch in wooden structures that range in shape from traditional teepees to wrapped presents to Christmas trees.
“Your families all get together, different generations get together to make them, then on Christmas Eve it’s like opening your doors for everyone to come in and enjoy,” Vicknair said. “Families and strangers come together and eat and drink and celebrate, and it’s just a big tradition.”
Vicknair works with the parishes and levee board to green-light permits for all the bonfires. Groups can start working on their pieces from the weekend after Thanksgiving through to Christmas Eve.
Weidert and his crew are clearly an exception in their seriousness, having held planning meetings long before Thanksgiving to narrow down a concept, draft a plan and make a small-scale model before starting the real thing.
His group, called Blood, Sweat and Bonfires, has over the last few years gained a social media following of more than 14,000 likes on Facebook with their extravagant designs including last year’s mechanical snapping turtle. In a guest book the group kept on site last year, Weidert said they had visitors from 40 states and nine countries come to see the spectacle.
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“It started off less complex in the typical teepee shape and eventually we started getting tired of those,” he said. “We’ve got too many guys with creative energy who had to let it out somewhere, so this is our outlet. You can talk to these guys 11 months out of the year and they’re normal guys, but when it’s bonfire season you hear that excitement in their voice, it’s a whole different thing.”
It’s something that’s kept the group of family and high school buddies connected through the years, especially during a time of year when countless other things pull them in separate directions. They design, they talk logistics, they drink beer and they build.
This year’s elaborate design — a giant pelican that includes a series of baby pelicans — is one he hopes will draw an even bigger crowd and will bring and extra measure of joy with its secret weapon: it poops.
“I know how these kids are and they like to see silly little things like that so we rigged up a piping system and it’s controlled by a valve so we can give it a quick squirt as they walk by,” Weidert said. “We tested it for the first time yesterday while a few kids were around and they got a kick out of it, and the adults around thought it was hysterical.”
The bonfires will be set ablaze at 7 p.m. on Monday, but Vicknair said attendees should get to the area much earlier to find parking, meander through the vendors' booths and, of course, experience the togetherness and community that comes with a unique event like the levee bonfires.