by Bob Ciminel
December 25, 2004
What began as friendly rivalry over the local tradition of lighting Christmas Eve bonfires along the Mississippi River above New Orleans erupted into a verbal brawl last weekend as opposing sides challenged each other to prove who really started the bonfire tradition.
Many say the bonfires began in the early 1880's, when riverboats plied the great river, but that theory has come under heavy criticism lately. Now that the bonfires are major tourist attractions, various cultural, ethnic, and political groups in the area are vying for the rights to license them. Licensing would allow the lucky licensee to designate "official" sponsors, which would mean big bucks for whoever holds the bonfire license.
According to Richard "T-John" Thibodaux, chief curator of the Fire in the Hole! Museum in St. James Parish, the bonfires originally were lit to guide townspeople and plantation workers to Christmas Eve church services. But Lance "T-Boy" Bergeron, Jr., owner of the historic Uncle Ben Plantation and RV Park, disagrees with T-John. "Hell, my ancestors wouldn't go to church on Christmas Eve; that was party time! They lit those bonfires to guide their friends and neighbors to the plantation landing for the big Christmas Eve pig roast. Why, my great granddaddy Sterling "T-Pop" Bergeron always had the biggest and brightest bonfires on the levee. Heck, when "T-Pop" was on his deathbed, he made my grandfather, "T-Son," promise he would never build bonfires that didn't live up to tradition. When he was at death's door, Grandpa "T-Son" made my Daddy, Lance Sterling "T- Top," promise the same to him. And Daddy "T-Top" said the same thing to me before he died. He said, '"T-Boy," your great granddaddy "T-Pop" told my father, "T-Son" to never let those bonfires get small. That's what Daddy "T-Top" told me and that's what I'm telling you.' He said, 'Burn the damn plantation house if you have to! No, wait, on second thought, burn the sharecropper houses first; the wood is better seasoned."
However, the most vocal factions in the bonfire debate are the little Cajun communities in Lafourche Parish, which are not even on the Mississippi River. According to Rachel "T-Girl" Fauntenot, spokesperson for the Lafourche Society for the Preservation of Cajun Traditions, "T-John" and "T-Boy" wouldn't know a bonfire from a refinery flare. I tell you for true, them Coonasses over by East Bank have got so many fires and explosions from those refineries that they have to light bonfires to make them feel at home when the plants turn down for the holidays. And if you don't believe me, just axe my little brother "T-Ball."
T-Girl and the LSPCT insist that the Cajuns in Lafourche Parish originated the bonfires to guide Papa Noel and his pirogue from the river into Bayou Teche so he could deliver his presents to all the Cajun children.
Perhaps the most convincing theory on the origin of the bonfires comes from Professor Samuel "T-Teach" Boudreaux, chairman of the Louisiana Ethnic Humanities department at Louisiana State University. Professor "T-Teach" insists that the bonfire tradition was started in 1970 by a group of LSU graduates.
According to Professor "T-Teach," "Back then, the bonfire parties were no worse than a nudist convention. There was less drinking than during Mardi Gras, and they were less violent than the Rolling Stones' concert at Altamont."
However, Professor "T-Teach" said that the parties on the levee soon became popular with LSU undergraduates and alumni. With football season over, LSU fans flocked to the bonfires, and they soon tuned into a huge tailgate party. The situation quickly got out of hand.
Intrigued by Professor "T-Teach's" findings, this reporter interviewed LSU graduate, Tommy "T- Grad" Leblanc, who confirmed that the bonfire tradition was "stolen" by the LSU alumni. "They turned it into a binge drinking party," said "T-Grad," "We never intended the bonfires to turn into what we have today. We used the bonfires to provide light and warmth, but the damn Alumni turned it into something perverted." When pressed to provide more details, "T-Grad" stated, "Once people from the surrounding towns began driving along River Road to look at the bonfires, the trashier LSU graduates started dropping their pants and mooning them. As more and more people got involved, they built more bonfires, and pretty soon the whole levee was lined with bonfires and people mooning each other."
This reporter believes that
Dr. "T-Teach" and Tommy "T-Grad" have the
true story behind the Christmas Eve bonfires. Evidence of this
is readily available in the signs posted along the streets of
Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina, which are the focal points of
the bonfire celebration. The signs advise visitors that mooning
can only be done while traveling to or from the parking lots.
The volunteer fire departments and local hospitals also reported
a significant decrease in the number first and second degree
burns to buttocks since these ordinances were enacted in the
early 1980s. It seems the evidence is clear; the tradition of
bonfires and mooning went hand in hand.