Christmas Eve on the Mighty Mississipp’

We spent eight really fun years in Louisiana (2000-2008). It’s a pretty unique place. The people there know how to enjoy life. Every time I turned around, there was a school holiday for something—and an extra spring break for Mardi Gras. Louisianians have the work/play balance figured out better than the rest of us.

Every year as Christmas Eve approaches, I get nostalgic for our Louisiana Christmas Eve tradition—driving out to the sticks (Gramercy, Louisiana) and watching the Christmas Eve bonfires. Legend has it that the families who lived on the river (my kids called it “The Migh-ty Mississipp’” because that’s what my dad called it when he came to visit and drove them up and down the levee in Baton Rouge) had to build bonfires to light the way for Père Noël.

I heard about this tradition after we’d been there a few years. I asked some friends how it worked, but didn’t find anyone who had actually been there, so we really had no idea what to expect. We started the festivities by reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 and then packed the kids into the car to go see the bonfires. We listened to our favorite Christmas CDs during the 45-minute drive. We parked a couple blocks away from the levee, bundled the kids up so they could survive the frigid 53 degree temperatures and stuffed Stuart into the stroller. There were families having big parties (of course—this was Louisiana, after all!) out in their driveways. More than one stranger hollered to invite us to join them for some jambalaya!

We hiked up to the levee. As far as the eye could see, there were big bonfires built about every 50 feet or so. We learned that families, neighbors, and offices get together to build them. The volunteer fire department builds a really cool one. One year they built a big log cabin—complete with all sorts of intricate details! Another year, a boat. Another, an RV.

At 8:00, everyone lit their bonfires. It was magical. We stood around and watched the bonfires burn for a while and then headed back to the car. Once the kids got in, I gave each of them a gift-wrapped box of pajamas. They were still little then, so no one was embarrassed to change into the PJs in the dark car. We got everyone all bundled up again in their new Christmas Eve PJs and headed home. Everyone fell asleep on the way home and Brent tucked them into bed, bringing them a sippy cup of water and kissing them on their foreheads as he has done (and continues to do—even though Kennedy is almost 15 years old) every night.

After that first time, we were hooked. We took some friends with us one year who came this close to spoiling the magic. The wife was a stuffy-ish woman from back East who kept grousing about how it wasn’t safe (and indeed, it is very unsafe—no one worries about kids stumbling into the fires or the fact that intoxicated people are lighting firecrackers and throwing them into the bonfires . . . one year the wood was wet, so the volunteer firefighters hauled huge barrels of gas up to the levee and poured gas all over the place until the wood caught fire). She made a few snide remarks about “southerners” which just about put me in a tizzy, but even she couldn’t ruin the magic of the whole experience—safety be damned.

Our first Christmas Eve back in Texas was a sad one. The move had been hard on all of us for different reasons. We considered driving back there on Christmas Eve (288 miles one way) just to see the bonfires, but reason prevailed. We also considered trying to duplicate it and doing our own bonfire here, but we knew that it would be a cheap substitute compared to the real deal, so we decided to just skip it.

This marks our fourth Christmas Eve in Texas and I still feel sad to be missing out on the bonfires. I like thinking about all those kids way back when, lighting a bonfire to light the way for Père Noël (and I don’t even care if that’s just a myth and therefore not really “true”). Our family knows it’s true.

Does your family have any quirky, unique Christmas traditions that only worked because of just the right people or because you lived in a particular place? And have you ever tried re-creating a tradition in a different place, or at a different time, or with different people? I’ve not had any luck with that. Is it worth trying to re-create those activities or moments, or is it best to just savor the memories?