by Kathleen Y'Barbo
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!
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 www.kathleenybarbo.comwww.kathleenybarbo.com.