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Things to do in New Orleans:  Bonfires on the Levee

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Christmas Eve in New Orleans

New Orleans, a city renowned for its vibrant culture and rich traditions, hosts an extraordinary event every Christmas Eve that adds a distinctive touch to the holiday season. The lighting of bonfires along the majestic Mississippi River during Christmas Eve in New Orleans is a tradition dating back to the earliest Cajun settlers in southern Louisiana. In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and significance of the bonfires on the levee and guide you on where to witness this enchanting spectacle for yourself!

Tradition of the Bonfires on the Levee

Artist rendition of the cajun santa claus papa noel

The lighting of bonfires on the levee is more than just a spectacle to behold for cheerful onlookers. Rather, this tradition began with a specific purpose. According to local folklore, The Cajun Santa Claus (affectionately known as “Papa Noël”) relies on these Christmas Eve bonfires to guide his way as he ventures across southeastern Louisiana to deliver Christmas presents to all. Some sources suggest that these fires also lit a path for local Catholics to follow to Midnight Mass. 

The earliest New Orleans bonfires were often simple pyramid-shaped structures, reaching heights of up to twenty feet. Long logs were arranged in a ladder-like fashion in order to achieve this shape and height. While this design is still common today, the tradition has evolved and given rise to more creative styles. The Mississippi riverbanks are now graced by elaborate structures resembling Cajun cabins, paddlewheel steamboats, alligators, fleur de lis, and other indigenous cultural motifs. 

The Grand Illumination

Bonfires on the levee
Photographer: JP Gisclair

Around 7:00pm local time, these towering structures are set ablaze, casting a warm glow across the Mississippi River. The flames create a mesmerizing display for both spectators on the levees and on boats in the water – and, of course, Papa Noel and his reindeer! As the crowds gather to witness these blazing wonders, some locales serve up hot gumbo and other New Orleanian fare, or even accompany the fire with a dazzling display of fireworks. This spectacular event is an excellent way to join in and celebrate the rich heritage of Louisiana’s River Parishes and Cajun traditions.

Best Places to Experience the New Orleans Bonfires

People attend the festival of the bonfires in st. James parish

Many of the greatest bonfires will take place upriver from New Orleans, such as the Festival of the Bonfires. Hosted in the town of Lutcher in St. James Parish, the Festival of the Bonfires boasts more than just a flaming fiasco. Gather your friends and family and get ready for three nights of great local food, live entertainment, crafts, amusement rides, and even experience Santa’s Very Merry Forest! Bonfires will be lit at 7pm each night of the festival from December 8-10, so it’s advised that you arrive an hour early or so to walk the levee and get a good spot!

As for the actual night of Christmas Eve, the options are more abundant. Bonfires will dot the banks of the river as far away as Baton Rouge. In addition to Lutcher, some of the most popular and numerous bonfires will be lighted in the adjoining cities of Gramercy and Paulina – all within St. James Parish. Tours by bus are even available for those who really want a good view of the Christmas Eve bonfires without the hassle of the crowds! Whether viewed by foot or by bus, the bonfires on the levee are sure to make your night truly unforgettable.

More Things To Do in New Orleans for Christmas

As you find yourself standing before the captivating glow of the Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River, consider extending your holiday adventure with a unique experience that truly embodies the spirit of Christmas in New Orleans. Why not add a city bus tour to your list of things to do in New Orleans for Christmas?

Designed for your utmost convenience, Cajun Encounters’ New Orleans city tour buses feature powerful climate control, air ride technology, and seamless windows for uninterrupted panoramic views. Our expert drivers will provide engaging commentary as you traverse renowned neighborhoods throughout the city such as the iconic French Quarter, the elegant Garden District, and the historic Treme, the birthplace of Jazz, among others.

A New Orleans city bus tour is the perfect complement to the warmth of the Christmas Eve bonfires, offering a diverse and unforgettable holiday experience. Make this Christmas truly magical – book your bus tour in New Orleans today and let Cajun Encounters guide you through the vibrant cultural tapestry of this unique city!

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