Festival a holiday tradition

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 20, 2002


LUTCHER – The 13th annual Festival of the Bonfires went off over the weekend in Lutcher and Gramercy with a bang. A total of 72 units highlighted the Sunday afternoon parade, including floats, bands and dance groups, and the streets were packed for the event.

The festival aims to keep alive the tradition of bonfires on the Mississippi River levee during the holiday season, said festival president Camella Landry, who declared herself exhausted but happy after the event.

“Admissions were up, and the weather was beautiful,” Landry said. “There were a lot more out-of-towners. I think it went pretty well.”

The parade honored St. James Council on Aging’s King and Queen of the Young at Heart, Floyd Simon and Frances Sanders. Each evening of the three-night event, dozens of bonfires, mostly built by families continuing a generations-long tradition, were set afire. The traditional explanation is lighting the way for Papa Noel to the River Parishes.

Features for the festival included live music, the Million-Mutt dog walk, a bell choir, a karate demonstration, crafts, photo with Santa, choirs and a tent full of local foods.

Each year, one major concern is insurance for the bonfires, which the festival covers. This year, Landry said, the premium on the $2 million policy came to $14,000, but the parishes of St. James and St. John the Baptist and the towns of Gramercy and Lutcher all assisted.

Last year, the premium was only $5,000, all to safeguard spectators.

Many more children came this year as well, Landry said, with the carnival rides relocated to a concrete slab, away from damp. She credited the many community volunteers for the success of the event.

On the levee, at the Gramercy-Lutcher line, Tony Hymel, 42, spoke of the tradition.

“We’ve been doing it forever. My father and his brothers used to do it at Mt. Airy,” Hymel said.

This year, he was helped by an abundance of friends and family, especially his own children, with the hopes of continuing this tradition.

“This will be the best bonfire,” Hymel pledged. “They can’t compete with us.”

Hymel recalled the days when bonfire builders were free to construct massive replicas of steamboats and plantation houses and elaborate replicas of the Statue of Liberty and such, all to be burned to the ground.

Many were twice the size of the now-limited height of 20 feet.

Though the festival is over, Christmas Eve will bring thousands of visitors back to Lutcher to view more bonfires after sunset. This biggest free show in the River Parishes draws people from across the state and beyond.

“I wouldn’t have Christmas no other way,” Hymel said with a smile. “No way in the world.”