Without Bonfires, How Will Papa Noel Find His Way? The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually when bonfire-building begins in earnest along the levees in St. James Parish in Louisiana to light the way for Papa Noel in the bayou. Because of high waters, the Army Corps of Engineers has put bonfire building on indefinite hold. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with longtime bonfire builder Philip Creel as he makes a gumbo.
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Without Bonfires, How Will Papa Noel Find His Way?

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Without Bonfires, How Will Papa Noel Find His Way?

Without Bonfires, How Will Papa Noel Find His Way?

Without Bonfires, How Will Papa Noel Find His Way?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120925888/120925879" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The weekend after Thanksgiving is usually when bonfire-building begins in earnest along the levees in St. James Parish in Louisiana to light the way for Papa Noel in the bayou. Because of high waters, the Army Corps of Engineers has put bonfire building on indefinite hold. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks with longtime bonfire builder Philip Creel as he makes a gumbo.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Thanksgiving weekend means the start of another tradition in the Mississippi River bayou - it's the kickoff to bonfire season. Every year at this time, the construction of bonfires on top of Mississippi levees begins. When lit, the fires blaze a path for Papa Noel to find his way down the river come Christmas. This year, though, he may be on his own.

Because of high water, the Army Corps of Engineers has called a moratorium on bonfire building until the water goes down some. And this put a cramp in Philip Creel's style. He's been building bonfires on the levees for 30 years and we reached him in his kitchen cooking, what else, gumbo. Philip Creel, welcome to our program.

Mr. PHILIP CREEL: How are you doing this morning?

LYDEN: Well, I'm doing fine, but�

Mr. CREEL: I'm doing great too.

LYDEN: I'm happy to�

Mr. CREEL: We got another pot of gumbo on right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, what's the latest on the bonfire building situation?

Mr. CREEL: The latest we heard was that there's a possibility December the 8th they might let us start. We're not sure yet, but that's the word that we've been hearing.

LYDEN: When's the last time something like this happened?

Mr. CREEL: Well, the only thing we can remember is they didn't let us light the bonfires one night right around 1983 because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. We got to have a pretty good north wind to light them and usually at that time of the year it's always a north wind. If the wind's blowing too much from the south, they won't let you light the bonfire. So that year I remember we didn't light them at Christmas, but we lit them for New Year's. So we had a New Year's party anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Philip Creel, as I go up and down the levee and see these things, how many are there?

Mr. CREEL: Oh, between the Lutcher, Gramercy and Paulina, I'd say around over 200.

LYDEN: And so all these are to light the way for Papa Noel on Christmas Eve?

Mr. CREEL: Uh-huh. That's what tradition says. And the other tradition is that it was to help people that go to midnight mass at the Catholic Church to find their way to church. It's either one of those two, they say.

LYDEN: So, do you wait until nearly midnight to light them? Or when do you light them?

Mr. CREEL: No, we wait till - we start at seven o'clock. If you go on the levee, you'll see one person light it at seven and then everybody lights it.

LYDEN: Philip, just take me there. What's it like on Christmas Eve when you're all standing around and waiting to light those bonfires?

Mr. CREEL: You know, we've got a saying at Christmas, when we're on a levee, we always say this: We wonder what the rest of the world is doing. 'Cause we're having such a good time, we wonder what the rest of the world does on Christmas Eve. I mean, it's all family members and friends and, you know, relatives around. And then you've got people that you've never met before, they come by and eat with you.

Louisiana, you know, when you look at Louisiana, we notice that our family, families and family's togetherness, no matter who you're with, you know. You forget about all your problems and all you do is just have a good time that night.

LYDEN: You have a great time and thank you so much. We hope the water goes down enough to make it safe.

Mr. CREEL: You're welcome. We welcome anyone who wants to come down to come on down Christmas Eve and partake in anything that we do.

LYDEN: You could have a few takers there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CREEL: I hope so.

LYDEN: Philip Creel joined us from St. James Parish on the Mississippi River.

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