- The Washington Times
Tuesday, December 24, 2019

GARYVILLE, La. — Regulators played Grinch-like roles when they lowered the traditional Christmas bonfires along the Mississippi River, but that didn’t mean Santa Claus flew in the dark Tuesday night as he followed the river through southeastern Louisiana.

Stephen Peytavin, 62, who lives by the levee and river in Garyville, said the 15-foot limit on the woodpiles, one of which this year was erected in the shape of a giant alligator, put a crimp in the wild bonfire festivities but didn’t douse them.

“Back in the day when we were kids they would be 35, 40 feet high,” he said. “We did have a few people get hurt, though.”

For more than a century, residents in what is known as the River Parishes have built massive Christmas Eve bonfires atop the levee to light the way for Santa and his flying reindeer through the swamps and bayous that drain toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

At least, that’s the commonly held story. Historians say the blazes may have a more terrestrial root, with the tradition intended to show the path to Mass back when this predominately Roman Catholic world lit only by fire.

In 2019, St. James Parish issued more than 100 bonfire permits, and St. John the Baptist Parish issued at least 30. The weather was unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon, which meant the beacons were ignited under mostly clear skies at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally, the late December winds in the parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans blow to the north and west, which is why the bonfire rituals focused on the eastern bank. That way, the sometimes sizable embers that can pop out of the bonfires arc into the Mississippi River.

Authorities have been known to delay or call off bonfire ignition if there are sharp eastern winds, which could put homes and businesses in peril of flying sparks.

Once again those neighborhoods were packed Tuesday evening. Authorities scrambled to keep traffic moving along the River Road that traces the levee and from which the bonfires can be seen.

In homes like the Peytavins’, the bonfire is both fun and a duty, as the families often host open houses with pots of gumbo, red beans and rice, and plenty of brown liquor.

Mr. Peytavin, 62, estimated a crowd of about 40 people at his party.

While the biggest cluster of levee bonfires is found around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina, a trio of river towns with less than 10,000 people between them that have a blaze roughly every 100 feet atop the levee, the most famous modern-day bonfire is built in Garyville, not far from Mr. Peytavin’s.

This year, the krewe, as groups are known in Louisiana, of Blood, Sweat and Bonfires constructed a nearly 80-foot-long alligator, complete with working jaws. The group torches something spectacular each Christmas Eve as part of a charity drive.

“They did a crawfish last year, they’ve done a snapping turtle, they even did a guitar one year,” Mr. Peytavin said. “They’ve got the robotics in there so the crawfish’s claw, or the gator, works and they take that out each year before they burn it and reuse it.”

As the festival grew, so too did holiday killjoys regulatory itch. First, authorities limited the bonfires to 20-feet in height, but a few years ago one bonfire caved in where a levee board official was watching. No one was hurt and no damage was done, but sure enough, the height limit was reduced to 15 feet.

Except for the alligator and some smaller bonfires, most of the $30 permits produced pyramid-like structure with a teepee frame and sides that appear to be a lattice of railroad ties.

For the big framework pieces, a hardwood like oak is required, while much of the feeder wood and the structure’s binding comes from willows, a softer, more malleable wood. All of it can be found in the patches of forest and swap lining the Mississippi, and an average year will require three trailer loads — “2 big ones and one smaller load” — for a bonfire that usually burns out around dawn.

“The willow’s really the best, but it’s crooked, so you have to use the oak for straight parts,” Mr. Peytavin noted.

The Christmas Eve pyrotechnics cap off what is known as the Festival of the Bonfires, one of Louisiana’s countless outdoor parties that feature bands and food — and much smaller fires. This year, the Festival of the Bonfires celebrated its 30th anniversary between Dec. 13-15, according to the River Parishes Tourist Commission.

Come Christmas morning, Mr. Peytavin and other bonfire proprietors can be spotted moving among the smoking ruins atop the levee, making sure all loose wood goes into the smoldering piles or the river. Bonfire permit holders have until Jan. 6 to clean up their sites, at which time Levee Board patrol killjoys try to hunt down malingering cleanup crews.

But as the ritual neared, young and old gathered, rubbing their hands for the Christmas Eve fire trail that will light the way for gifts.

“My dad used to light a bonfire every year by the Sunshine Bridge in Union, which you’ve never heard of,” Mr. Peytavin said. “But now — well, it’s a sight to see.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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