St. James preps for Christmas Eve bonfires

Every year, Corey Zeringue, 25, builds a bonfire on the Mississippi River levee with family and friends to light on Christmas Eve.

Most years, Zeringue and his crew build a traditional, teepee-shaped structure.

There are more than 100 of them, standing like sentinels along 10 miles of the levee between Gramercy and Convent, ready to be lit Tuesday night.

This year, Zeringue decided to bring back a design he’s done only once before — the letters “LSU” created in the medium of logs and measuring 12 feet high, 24 feet long and 8 feet deep.

Zeringue first built the LSU bonfire in 2008.

“It was one of the last bonfires my grandpa saw,” he said of Clarence “Ken” Zeringue, who died in October 2009.

Corey Zeringue decided to build the LSU design this year in memory of his grandfather, and on a sunny afternoon Monday, in a biting cold breeze, he and others were putting the final touches on the structure.

Dustin Jenkins was the artist for the huge purple-and-gold tiger eye painted on the grass of the sloping levee in front of the structure.

Many of the bonfire builders like to add cane reeds to their bonfire structures — the joints in the cane reeds pop like firecrackers, and the burning green leaves emit sparks to add to the show.

“I started building bonfires on the levee when I was 9 years old,” said Albert Laiche, 71, of Paulina, who was out with family members on Monday, adding a layer of cane reed, secured by wiring, around their bonfire teepee.

The structure is 11 feet high, and the long, graceful, green cane reeds are about 16 feet long, completely covering the solid teepee of logs beneath.

“When I was a little boy, we couldn’t afford firecrackers” and the popping reeds sounded like them, he said.

Bonfire builders add real firecrackers as well.

The weather is expected to be clear and cold in St. James Parish on Christmas Eve, down in the low 30s. Before the start of the bonfires at 7 p.m., officials will check to make sure there’s not a wind blowing from the south, toward the towns across River Road from the levee.

If that happens, the bonfire will be delayed until New Year’s Eve, but those who live in the area said they can’t remember that ever happening.

The people who build the bonfires, as well as folks watching the show from their yards across the road from the levee, share their hospitality and food — gumbo is a traditional favorite — with thousands of visitors on Christmas Eve.

Pat Dupuy, tourism officer with the St. James Welcome Center, said two restaurants in the area, Café Perique on Main Street in Gramercy and Creole House Café on La. 3125 in Paulina, will be open Tuesday until 6 p.m.

Visitors who care to travel River Road from Gramercy down to Convent — at some point, there will be a stretch of road without many bonfire structures — will find a fine bonfire structure with the appearance of an old plantation home, the Welham Plantation near Convent.

The bonfire structure is located across from the St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Convent. Visitors need to see the “plantation” before 7 p.m. Tuesday. After that it’s a … bonfire.