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River Parish Christmas bonfire tradition honors sugarcane

The Mississippi River levee in front of retired sugarcane farmer George “Scrap” Hymel’s Gramercy, Louisiana home has been the site of a Christmas Eve bonfire for 53 years. Hymel saw his last bonfire in 2022; he passed away on December 30, 2022.

But for the Hymel family to not participate in the annual tradition of building the holiday bonfire was out of the question.

Scrap’s wife, Denny Hymel, explained.

“Almost as soon as Scrap passed, my son, Stevie, started coming up with ideas for the 2023 bonfire design,” said Denny. “It was our way of honoring my husband. He was dedicated to sugarcane and Louisiana agriculture.”

Story and photos by Sam Irwin
American Sugar Cane League

The ritual lighting of bonfires in St. James Parish along the Mississippi River is a centuries old European tradition brought to Louisiana by French colonists. Children delight in the idea that the bonfires light the way for Papa Noel (the French version of Santa Claus) to their homes as he travels along the river. Thousands of visitors stroll along the levee top or cruise the River Road to watch the bonfires illuminate the darkest night of the year while others visit the many open houses along the river to spend time with family and spread good cheer.

The lighting will take place Saturday, December 23 because rainy and windy conditions are expected on Christmas Eve.

Most of the bonfires are traditionally built in a teepee shape with scrub tree timber but Scrap’s bonfire was built in the shape of a John Deere tractor.

“Stevie and his crew brought one of the models up to the levee top and worked the design from the model,” Denny said. “They put a lot of detail into it.”

“Scrap was a FarmAll man but when the John Deere’s came out, he went with them. I bought him the collection of John Deere models that are on display in the case in my house. I had to look far and wide for the earliest models, but we collected them all.”

Of course, the John Deere tractor design was helped along by Stevie. Stevie works for the John Deere dealership in the area.

A bit further up River Road is another non-traditional bonfire built in the shape of a sugarcane combine harvester.

Although the faux combine had no identifying trademarks, it was identified as a Case model.

“This one is a Case combine,” said one of the builders. “A sugarcane farmer is going to bring some Case signage later.

The iconic tractor and combine bonfire designs underscore the economic and cultural importance of sugarcane to the River Parishes and south Louisiana. Even though it is late December, Louisiana’s sugarcane farmers and millers are still hard at work harvesting cane and making raw sugar. Completing the harvest is crucial at this time of year because a killing frost can severely diminish the returns. As of December 16, the harvest was 78 percent complete.

There are 33 bonfires in St. John Parish and 107 in St. James. A permit is necessary to build one. Most of the St. James bonfires are concentrated in a four-mile stretch of River Road that runs through Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina.

There is evidence to suggest the bonfire tradition harkens back to pre-Civil War days when French Maraist priests brought the Old World custom to Jefferson College, according to University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor Marcia Gaudet’s 1984 study, “Tales from the Levee: the Folklore of St. John the Baptist Parish.”

Gaudet speculated Jefferson College (now Manresa Retreat House in Convent) students carried the custom to their hometowns and the ritual was established in St. James and St. John parishes before 1900.

The site of the Bourgeois store at River Road and Grand Point Road (La. 642) may have been the location of the first remembered Christmas Eve bonfire, Gaudet surmised.

The lighting of the bonfires will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday, December 23. Attendees should try to arrive early, at least by 6 p.m.

The bonfires are located along the Mississippi River levees in St. John the Baptist and St. James Parishes. Most of the bonfires are on the east bank of the river, but there are a handful on the west bank.

Road directions: For St. John bonfires, take Exit 206 in LaPlace from Interstate 10 and continue south on Belle Terre Boulevard. Make a right onto Airline Highway and head towards Reserve. Turn south onto Central Avenue in Reserve and make a right onto River Road (Highway 44).

For St. James Parish bonfires, visitors should take Exit 194 Gramercy/Lutcher from Interstate 10 and head south on Louisiana Highway 3213. Take the Louisiana Highway 44  (River Road) exit just before the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Gramercy. This will lead to the first bonfires on the levee, continue right on River Road.

Expect heavy traffic congestion along the levee.

Parking: Many visitors enjoy a great view of the bonfires while cruising along River Road (Highway 44), which will flow only in one direction, westbound, from 6 to 9 p.m.

For visitors looking to view the bonfires from a stationary vantage point, street parking is first come, first serve. Authorities warn not to block driveways, roadways or park in someone’s front yard.

In St. James Parish, some parking lots are available within a few blocks of the levee at Lutcher High School, 1910 W. Main St., Lutcher, and Gramercy Town Hall, 120 N. Montz Ave., Gramercy.



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