Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

In South Louisiana, Holiday Bonfires Are a Family Tradition

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

In South Louisiana, Holiday Bonfires Are a Family Tradition

Article excerpt

LUTCHER, La. | Mahlon Poche has been helping build Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River levee since he was a child in the 1940s.

In those days, bonfires could be built out of anything that would create a sensational fire.

"We'd start with a big tractor tire, then stuff it with old car tires," Poche, who lives in Lutcher, said.

"We'd build up the wood, then haul cane reed and build it 2 1/2 feet thick," he said. "We lit that thing on Christmas Eve, and on New Year's Eve it was still smoking."

The tradition of lighting Christmas Eve bonfires -- typically more than 100 of them in St. James Parish in the Lutcher and Gramercy areas -- may have had its beginnings as far back as the 1800s or even earlier.

The majority of the bonfires are built by people whose families have been doing it for generations. Jason Amato, a parish councilman and volunteer fire chief who coordinates the permitting of the bonfires, said 95 percent of the $30 permits are issued to the same families each year.

Amato said he remembers bonfires of years past being as tall as 40 feet.

About 10 years ago, regulations for safety and environmental concerns were passed. Now the bonfires, though still impressive, are limited to a height of 20 feet, and the fuel is strictly wood -- usually willow, a fast-burning tree in plentiful supply along the levee.

What's remained the same is the sheer physical labor involved and the breathtaking spectacle of the row of burning bonfires, which most families like to enhance with fireworks on the night of the lighting.

The first tasks are cutting the trees, cutting off their branches and then hauling the logs to the levee site. The larger logs -- for the base of the bonfires -- may be 8 to 9 inches wide.

The center pole is set 2 feet into the ground. Then, with the help of a tall ladder, four other poles are slanted in, teepee- style, and the logs are nailed to a cross-piece of lumber at the top.

They're also wired together at the top. …

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