Monday, December 24, 2007

A Louisiana Christmas Tradition- The Feux de Joie

Tonight on both the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans a wonderful thing will happen. That is the Feux de Joie which means Fires of Joy. People will gather and set a ton of bonfires on both sides. This site has a short description.

If you're having trouble swallowing Santa slipping - or squeezing - down the chimney, and reindeer flying through the sky with a red nose lighting the way, you might like to ponder the New Orleanean way.
They light feux de joie, fires of joy, along the banks of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to cleverly guide Papa Noel (and that IS what they call him) as he glides down the river in his paddleboat. Now, doesn't this make more sense? ....Thought to have begun as early as the 1750's with the Arcadians (now Cajuns), who settled along the riverbanks, the celebration goes on the entire month of December with a big boat parade, music and a huge bonfire kicking off the event on the 2nd of December (3rd this year, due to unwieldy winds).

The highlight is of course tonight. Sadly I was never able to attend the Christmas Week and especially Christmas Eve fires. When I lived in Baton Rouge I often had to head to North Louisiana to start the marathon of Family Christmas events that would take me from Homer to Shreveport, to Mississippi and back again. How I hope I can go one day. I think it would be wonderful to go and then end the night with the community attending midnight mass in one of those river towns. Perhaps I will be able to do it soon.

I did not realize this but this also appears to be a tradition in the Southwestern part of the State which makes somes sense. By the way Cajun folks. You might be interested in this article. There appears you might have a family connection to people in WEST VIRGINIA. That nugget is contained in this article.

DOWN along the levees of southwest Louisiana today, they're assembling piles of brush and logs for tonight's big bonfires.
It's Christmas Eve, and the Cajuns - those descendants of French-speaking Canadians who were forced from the maritime regions of Canada more than 200 years ago - celebrate Christmas in what some may think is a peculiar way.
The real reason for lighting the bonfires on the levees is perhaps lost in antiquity. The current story is that the fires help Santa find his way to Cajun country so he can bring toys to good girls and boys.
The German families who live among the Cajuns will celebrate Christmas as well, but a couple of weeks ago they celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas. The Germans gathered as families to party and await a visit from St. Nicholas, a man garbed in bishop's robes.
He was accompanied by an elfish character known as "Black Peter," who carried a sack on his back. It's said that Black Peter puts bad children in his bag and carries them away to who-knows-where.
His arrival stirs tension among the kids. But Black Peter has never been known to carry a kid away, thank goodness.
But back to those Cajuns and their bonfire tradition: Before he passed away, my guru on Appalachian topics, Dr. O. Norman Simpkins, said there might be a cultural connection between the Cajuns and mountain folks.
Simpkins speculated that the cultural ancestors of the Cajuns could well be the Parisi, a tribe of Celts who inhabited the islands in the Seine River.
The Celts were not Christians until they were converted by early missionaries.
The early Celts were similar to today's Wiccans. They probably celebrated the Winter Solstice around this time of the year. They saw the sun getting lower in the sky every day and thought it was about to die.
So what did they do?
They built bonfires and kept them blazing for days to heat the sun and revive it. When they saw the sun slowly rising in the sky again, they thought they had saved the sun again.
That meant party time. The Celts didn't need much to party.
Could it be that the Cajun tradition of lighting bonfires on Christmas Eve comes from the Celtic tradition of lighting bonfires to save the sun?
Whatever the reason, the bonfire celebration in Cajun country is a family affair. The Cajuns are as family-oriented as mountain folks.
And they suffer from many of the same maladies - poor economic conditions, poor health and a cultural inferiority complex that may rival the one mountain people share.
But what better way of fighting the darkness than with light? What better way of doing what you can to bring cheer to the sometimes cheerless winter weather than by celebrating with a bonfire, and helping Santa along his route as well?
Whatever you do to bring warmth to yourself, your family or the world this holiday season, may it bring you happiness, peace and light


Cajun Huguenot said...

I spent much of my youth growing up in Destrahan, LA which is on the East Bank about 20 mile up river from New Orleans. I can remember the bonfires built on top the levees for miles around.

I remember building on with my friends (we were freshmen in highschool) One person would climb the small tree (about 20 feet tall) and we would chop it down and the guy on top would ride it to the ground.

Thinking back on it was a dumb thing to do, but we thought it was great fun. Then we hauled the trunks to the top of the Mississippi River levee.

Bonfires on the levee are a very old tradition.


James H said...

Merry Christmas Hugenot!!!

It does seem fun. I think one year I am going to go down to New ORleans on Christams nad kinda of hit this and other things. I would very much like to see it

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