Christmas Eve 2007 - Mars with the Full Moon in tow
photo by Renegade
GRAMERCY — The Gramercy Volunteer Fire Department has been on more than 150 calls this past year, but few if any were actual fire emergencies.
“Some years we have no fire calls,” Gramercy Fire Chief David Detillier said. “Other years we have three or four.”
Christmas Eve was a different story.
Detillier, his crew and firefighters from other departments kept a careful watch as more than 130 Christmas Eve bonfires burned atop the Mississippi River flood protection levee in the St. James Parish communities of Gramercy, Lutcher, Paulina and Convent.
Detillier said his Fire Department was mainly concerned about the ones within the Gramercy city limits.
“We’re going to have to watch about 40 fires tonight,” Detillier said before the bonfires were lit. “Most will burn themselves out by about 10 p.m.”
If Detillier’s attitude toward the bonfires seems nonchalant, it’s only because the ritual lighting of bonfires atop the Mississippi River levee is a longtime Christmas tradition in St. James Parish.
Thousand of visitors began flooding into the river communities at 5 p.m. Monday to jostle for best position to watch the 7 p.m. lighting of the tall pyramid-shaped bonfires.
Once the fires are lighted, a stream of cars, trucks, vans, buses and motorcycles cruises past the bonfires to take in the entire spectacle of the burning conflagrations.
Many residents along River Road opened their homes to the visitors and served a variety of gumbos, including red bean, seafood, and chicken and sausage.
Detillier said he conferred with the Lutcher and Paulina fire chiefs earlier in the day and determined the bonfires posed no hazard to nearby homes.
The chiefs recommended to Parish President Dale Hymel Jr. that it was safe to light the fires.
“As long as we have a north wind, it’s not usually a problem,” Detillier said.
Many residents, mostly those under the age of 7, believe the bonfires burn on Christmas Eve to light the way for PaPa Noël, the river parish version of Santa Claus.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette folklorist Marcia Gaudet says there is historical evidence to suggest the bonfire tradition harkens back to at least pre-Civil War days.
“It’s interesting that the tradition is mainly practiced in St. James Parish,” Gaudet said. “I think the French Maraist priests in Convent helped to preserve the tradition.”
Gaudet, in her 1984 study “Tales from the Levee: the Folklore of St. John the Baptist Parish,” speculated that the students of the Maraist priests of Jefferson College (now Manresa Retreat House) carried the custom to their hometowns.
Detillier said that even though the bonfires are not supposed to be lighted until 7 p.m., there is always one group that jumps the gun.
“They put diesel fuel on these things and then a firework or something goes astray and bam, one of the bonfires is lighted early,” Detillier said.
Does Detillier, a firefighter with more than 25 years experience, believe the fireworks story?
His response was tongue in cheek. “Well, that’s what they say.”
Hope you caught that awesome astronomical display last night! The full moon was bright, and so was Mars... or was that Rudolph? Check the photo above, which I snapped around midnight.
Merry Christmas... and don't forget the reason for the season!