St. James Parish government canceled Wednesday the annual Christmas Eve bonfire celebration due to rising coronavirus rates, even as some participants had already started setting up their wooden structures on the Mississippi River levee.

The viral pandemic, which has killed nearly 6,400 people, has upended life in Louisiana in big ways and small. Now it has claimed yet another of the public celebrations, from Mardi Gras parades to an array of festivals, that are essential threads in the cultural fabric of the state. 

With ancient roots in Europe and especially France, Christmas Eve bonfires in St. James and neighboring river parishes may have begun in the late 1800s.

The traditional tepee-shaped fires are said the light the way for Papa Noel on his nighttime ride to deliver gifts to girls and boys. In the modern incarnation, the levee bonfires, often stuffed with fireworks, have become a tourist attraction and the center of a sprawling holiday block party.

Parish officials, who have been in discussions for days with the State Fire Marshal's Office on a possible plan to continue the annual event, said their unified command group "tried to find all possible alternatives for safely continuing with this tradition." But they could not.

The final straw was new state health data Wednesday showing St. James Parish's test positivity rate had nearly doubled and hit 16.9% for the week ending Dec. 2, parish officials said in a statement. 

"This was by no means an easy decision to make as this tradition is long standing and special to our community in particular," parish officials said Wednesday. "We understand this has been an extremely difficult year for many of us and we have hoped for a sense of normalcy in the Christmas season especially, however, we must first and foremost protect the health, safety and well-being of our residents."

The concern centered around the crowds the event could be expected to draw and how social distancing could be maintained in an event the runs for miles along the levee, parish officials have said.

Many riverside homes are open for guests during the fires, while people gather on the levee next to sometimes elaborate bonfire creations. River Road often is packed with traffic cruising the levee's length to see the wooden structures on its crest.

The bonfires are built on both sides of the river, but the greatest concentration is usually between Gramercy and Paulina on the east bank. A smaller number of bonfires are built in St. John the Baptist Parish, but the status of those fires wasn't immediately clear Wednesday evening. 

The nonprofit organization behind the bonfire event had previously canceled its annual festival that precedes the Christmas Eve celebration by about a week but had held out hope the bonfires could continue.

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.

Positivity rates continue to rise across the region and the state. Ten of the 12 parishes in the Baton Rouge region were at 10% or greater with an 11th, Assumption Parish, close the mark also. Statewide, more than three-quarters of the parishes in Louisiana — 49 of 64 — had weekly positivity rates of 10% or greater.

Positivity rate is a ratio that shows the share of positive cases for a given batch of tests. Rising rates, especially at double-digit levels, can be a critical signal that spread of the virus is headed toward concerning levels, but rising rates can also mean the penetration of testing is slipping when test numbers are on the decline.

Some of the rate increase in the region could be due to a dip in testing during the Thanksgiving break. The latest data are for the seven-day period ended Dec. 2 and include the holiday break.

On Thursday at noon, Parish President Pete Dufresne plans to host a Facebook Live discussion "to address in more detail how this decision was made as well as permit refunds and deconstructing of previously built bonfires."

"If you have not yet built your bonfire, we ask that you do not continue with construction," the statement says.

Parish officials had said previously residents were permitted to start building the bonfires earlier this fall but no decision had been made then on whether they could be lighted for Christmas Eve.

Typically, bonfire construction starts in force during and after the Thanksgiving holiday.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.