’Twas the night before Christmas when I found Nina browsing The Legend of Papa Noël. Written by Terri Hoover Dunham and illustrated by Laura Knorr, this children’s book is subtitled, “A Cajun Christmas Story.” Since Christmas appeals to the young at heart—and we’re both getting up there in years—I snuggled in with Nina to revisit Papa Noël, Santa’s Cajun alter ego, as well as my own relationship to both this story and alternative Christmas celebrations in general.
Hoover relates Papa’s midnight ride through the foggy bayous of Louisiana in a pirogue—a flat-bottomed canoe—pulled by eight alligators. After all, sleds and flying reindeer make as much sense in the swamp as its infamous Loup-garou monster would make at the North Pole. One night, the fog got too dense for even Nicolette, Rudolf’s counterpart. So the locals along the waterways helped Papa Noël find his way by lighting bonfires.
I told Nina about my own experience, long before she was born, with Papa Noël’s midnight ride down the Mighty Mississippi and how those bonfires helped me create my alternative traditions for Christmas.
It all started when Bob and I moved to New Orleans. We joined a few thousand of our closest friends to explore Christmas Eve along the Great River Road in Gramercy and Lutcher. There, neighborhood families organized block parties to welcome friends and strangers alike with banquets that featured everything from cochon de lait and deep-fried turkey, to homemade pralines and cafe au lait—and all the gumbos, jambalaya, and soufflés you can imagine in between. The banquet served as a prelude to the main event—the lighting of the bonfires.
The bonfires. You can’t imagine the sight, sound, and smell. The term derives from the Middle English bone fire—a “fire of bones.” In this case, the bones are lumber and scrap materials used to construct hundreds of towering masterpieces that depict everything from pyramids and trucks to miniature mansions and riverboats. Traditionally, there’s even a pirogue with Papa Noël and his alligators. Somewhere around 7 o’clock, a local fire chief signals the simultaneous torching of the wooden structures. Embedded in each are fireworks and sparklers that boom and flash for hours.
Although local lore attributes the tradition to lighting the way for Papa Noël, Emily Chenet Guidry presents a history that goes deeper. In “Bonfires on the Levee: A Christmas Eve Tradition along the River Road,” she dates their origins to the early 1700s when French and German immigrants settled in the area. They brought with them the ancient Celtic custom of building large ceremonial fires to honor the sun. Such a ritual would be quite appropriate on the winter solstice, when the waning sun begins to wax. In Cabanocey: The History, Customs and Folklore of St. James Parish, Lillian Bourgeois recounts that family and friends gathered not on Christmas Eve, but on New Year’s Eve, based on first-hand interviews with old-timers who remember ending the year with “a gumbo supper, eggnog and the burning of huge cone-shaped bonfires on the batture (i.e., levee).”
Regardless of their origins, a visit to the bonfires became a tradition. That is, until we moved to the Washington, D.C., area. There, a totally different tradition emerged.
Like the bonfires, the alternative was based on the local milieu. But unlike the communities along the River Road, D.C. was strangely deserted as most denizens headed elsewhere for Christmas, leaving the stately museums along the Mall nearly empty. I discovered this early on when I headed to the National Gallery on Christmas Eve and happened upon an intimate docent-led tour of the Madonna and Child through the centuries. Another year, Bob and I spent a few hours at the National Archives—something you just can’t do on most days when tourists line up for blocks for a 10-second peek of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in the Rotunda.
My friend Catharine and I settled into a routine of visiting a different museum each year and then having lunch at one of the museum restaurants. We usually ended up at the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. We would sit by the window facing the rock-studded fountains, sometimes frosted with snowy flakes, and enjoy wild rice and watercress salad, cedar-planked wild salmon, or roasted wild mushrooms with smoked potatoes and fresh herbs. What’s Christmas Eve without good food?
When the temps reently plunged in Southwest Florida, a new tradition emerged. A few of the ladies on my street decided we needed a little Christmas. Having landed here seeking year-round warmth, we all knew real cold—Laurie’s from Michigan; Carol’s a native Chicagoan who arrived by way of Maryland and Colorado; and I’m a Connecticut Yankee who identifies as a New Orleanian, but who also has lived in Colorado and Virginia. In other words, 40 degrees is nothing. But it doesn’t take long for one’s blood to thin in Florida. So we bundled up and headed out in Carol’s golf cart after sunset to view the neighborhood displays of lights.
To set the mood, she downloaded a playlist of holiday favorites, decked her cart with a Bluetooth player, and donned her reindeer leggings. I hopped in with hot cocoa in thermal travel mugs. Laurie took up the rear to navigate and narrate—a logical role for someone who knows where everyone lives, previously lived, and the particulars of their decorations. Like the “holiday tree” that gets decorated for every holiday—not just Christmas, and the pink flamingos swaddled in pink scarves and hats.
Oh what fun it was to ride in a five-horsepower sleigh—Hey!
Somewhere between Jingle Bells and the Chipmunks, I found myself dreaming of a Green Christmas, where down the lane, palm trees glistened, and garage door expositions swirled Santa on his mission. We sang the old songs as we cruised along, passed out candy canes to evening walkers, and had ourselves a Merry Little Christmas time.
After an hour of oohing and aahing our way through several neighborhoods, we awarded our home base “Best in Show.” I shared that observation a few days later with a woman from another neighborhood. “Well, that makes sense,” she replied without hesitation. “That’s where all the young people live.”
The young people? Who knew? We moved to a 55-plus community, and ended up in a youthful enclave. Now that’s an alternative tradition I can live with. As I told Nina, Christmas is for the young at heart. She seemed to nod in agreement as she eyeballed her still-unopened presents.