Bonfires of St. James Parish

Annual pyres attract thousands to the Mississippi levees

St. James Parish residents will kick off the holiday season in their unique style this weekend.

Residents have been building bonfire structures along the Mississippi River for as long as people can remember. Most of the bonfires will be lit on Christmas Eve, when thousands of visitors flock to the parish to see the fires light up the levee.

“We’ve been doing this all our life,” said Troy Martin, who was constructing a bonfire stack along the levee Thursday afternoon with his friend, Alex Duhe.

Martin and Duhe, who have been best friends since the mid-1980s, said they have spent hours constructing their 16-foot structure for their Christmas Eve bonfire. They worked five hours on Wednesday, cutting and stacking wood, and had spent another five hours on Thursday when they took a break to discuss the annual tradition.

“We’re trying not to kill ourselves, but with just two people it takes a while,” Duhe said.

They recalled chopping wood with their parents when they were children, building structures as high as 40 feet, Martin said. Today, though, regulations limit the structures to 20 feet, he said.

Several dozen friends and relatives are expected to visit the bonfire on Christmas Eve, and Martin said they plan to party along the levee until the wee hours of the morning.

“Last year, me and him fell asleep right here,” Martin said. “We each had a beer in our hands.”

While the majority of the bonfires will be lit on Christmas Eve, one will be lit each night this weekend at the 23rd annual Festival of the Bonfires, which kicks off at 2 p.m. Friday and includes a host of entertainment activities over the next three days.

“This is the only festival that’s considered to be a St. James Parish festival,” said Rhonda Lee, the festival’s president who said she expects 5,000 visitors this weekend.

“It is a pride thing because we love our bonfires,” Lee said. “There’s something about the people in St. James Parish, especially on this side of the river. We want to share our traditions. We want to share our food. We want to share everything.”

The three-day festival will be at the Lutcher Recreation Park on La. 3193 near Lutcher Town Hall.

“Friday night is a good night to go if you like to eat,” Duhe said. “Saturday is the night if you like to dance and Sunday is when they really throw down.”

Larry Roussel said Friday is the best day to attend the festival. As the co-chairman of the festival’s gumbo cook-off, he admitted to being a little biased.

Roussel called the gumbo cook-off the “signature event” of the festival. This year, the event features a record 62 entries in three categories — poultry, seafood and melange, or non-traditional gumbos, including the red bean gumbo that is unique to St. James Parish, he said.

Roussel said 40 judges will test the entries, with the top three finishers in each category receiving awards. The winner of each category will compete for the prize of best gumbo.

The competitors aren’t participating for prize money, though, just pride.

“That’s what it’s all about — the braggin’ rights,” Roussel said.

The bonfires are synonymous with St. James Parish’s identity, and the annual festival continues to grow every year, Roussel.

“People build bonfires because that’s in our blood,” he said. “What Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, that’s what the bonfires are to St. James Parish.”