Sunday, December 1, 2013

Papa Noel and the Christmas Eve Bonfires: Celebrating Christmas on the Louisiana Bayou

by Kathleen Y'Barbo

In many respects, Christmas on the Louisiana bayou is like Christmas anywhere else. Families gather, carols are sung, and children are put to bed with the anticipation of gifts and celebration on Christmas morning. However, there are a few things that make a Cajun holiday special.

Papa Noel instead of Santa Claus
The jolly man most of us recognize as Santa Claus is not who the Acadians of South Louisiana look to as the deliverer of gifts on Christmas Eve. Papa Noel, the Cajun version of Saint Nick, makes his rounds in a pirogue--a shallow Louisiana boat--pulled by eight alligators. In some versions of the story, Papa Noel--or Pere Noel as the Cajuns say--is dressed in muskrat hides instead of his traditional red garb as he pilots his boat. Always his sack of toys holds special gifts for good boys and girls, and sometimes he offers up lumps of coal for those who were not so nice.

Bonfires on the levees on Christmas Eve
How does Papa Noel find his way to the homes of those children who live in the deepest recesses of the bayou? Long ago, the natives of this part of the country began building bonfires on the levees, teepee-shaped log structures that, when lit, could guide the way for anyone seeking to deposit gifts under Christmas trees. Although legend has it that these bonfires may have been used to light the parishioners' way to Christmas Eve services, the idea of a nautical landing strip for the fabled Papa Noel brings a smile to children's faces.

Christmas eve bonfires are not a new idea. Many Europeans, including those of German and French descent, have traditions that include these fiery towers. That Louisiana is a melting pot of these cultures--and more--makes it likely that settlers from these areas brought this aspect of the celebration with them.

The Mississippi River town of Lutcher, Louisiana holds a Christmas bonfire celebration every Christmas eve. At 7pm sharp on December 24, over one hundred 30-foot tall bonfires are lit along the river to guide Papa Noel into the town. In the rare event of rain, the lighting of the bonfires is moved to New Years Eve. In St. James parish, the Festival of the Bonfires offers another opportunity to see this Louisiana tradition in action. All down the river road, plantations such as Oak Alley and Madewood hold similar celebrations.

Wherever you go in South Louisiana, you will find a Cajun Christmas is very much like yours and mine. And very different at the same time!

Joyeaux Noel, Y'all!


KATHLEEN Y'BARBO is the bestselling author of over 50 books with more than one million copies of her books in print in the United States and abroad. A Romantic Times magazine Top Pick, Reviewer's Choice nominee, and Career Achievement nominee, Kathleen has been a finalist in American Christian Fiction Writer's Carol Awards and Romance Writers of America's RITA competition.

She and her hero in combat boots husband make their home north of the Red River. To find out more about Kathleen's books or to connect with her on Facebook or Twitter, check out her website at


  1. I would bet that bonfires along the levees would be a true site of beauty!

  2. It's so fascinating to me how differently cajuns celebrate the whole Santa Claus stuff from the rest of the US! When I used to sing and perform when I was younger one of my fave secular Christmas song was Papa Noel by the same lady who sang Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree! (I can't remember her name!) Thanks for a fun post Kathleen! Merry Christmas!

  3. Hallo, Hallo Ms. Y'Barbo! :)

    Happy December! I adore learning about the unique differences of Christmas traditions from one culture to another! :) I find that through the common threads of what we share in common, we're united in the warming glow of the Spirit of Christmas! I have a parchment folding book that speaks about Father Christmas, and his fond love from around the world! Including how his name changes, his clothes, and a few other bits about him as well, as he travels from one place to another. Each of the cultures, traditions, and countries represented though all have a shared common thread of goodwill, peace, and joy brought to the children whose innocence lights up all of our hearts with love! :)

    Beautiful story!
    And, how clever to have learnt about a tradition of one of the Gulf States hugged close to my own!
    I love uncovering Bayou country stories!
    Thank you!

  4. What a fun article. Thanks for sharing, Kathleen.