Louisiana Public Broadcasting airs documentary on bonfire tradition

Published 5:12 pm Wednesday, December 7, 2022

GRAMERCY — A native of Chicago, filmmaker Mark Niedelson was used to a white Christmas. A visit to St. James Parish more than 20 years ago introduced him to a new Christmas visual — one where children took sleigh rides on cardboard boxes down a grassy levee lined with beautiful bonfire structures waiting to be set ablaze.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting has scheduled two upcoming showings of Niedelson’s documentary, “Papa Noel: The Legacy of the Levee Bonfires.” Filmed locally, the documentary is set to air at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 7 on LPB-HD and at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 on LPB-3.

The documentary, which initially aired via Louisiana Public Broadcasting in 2021, is set to make its nationwide debut next year. NETA Programming will place “Papa Noel” into a pool to be made accessible to all PBS networks across the nation in 2023.

Niedelson began working on the documentary in the year 2000, and the initial version was completed around 2012-2013. In 2015, it was polished and tightened into the version that aired on LPB in 2021.

“Papa Noel: The Legacy of the Levee Bonfires” includes interviews with local historians who share how the tradition started and has been passed down for generations.

“I hope there is positive feedback on the documentary and that it grows to the nationwide status so we can get it out there and let it be seen,” Niedelson said. “The purpose of making the film was for it to be seen, and it’s taken a while to get there, but I am pretty proud of myself because it’s hard for an independent guy to get this far all alone.”

Niedelson learned about the bonfire tradition during a holiday trip to New Orleans. He and his brother took a chance on a bus tour to the River Parishes after seeing an announcement for the Bonfire Festival pinned to a bulletin board at a youth hostel.

“We got there in the early afternoon. I saw all of these structures, and I was really in awe,” Niedelson said. “I liked the energy. As the evening started building, the excitement and the traffic started building. When they used the pyrotechnics to light these things, I was even more blown away.”

Curious about the meaning behind it all, Niedelson asked the bonfire builders, “Why are you doing this?”

The response was always the same: “Because my Daddy did it.”

“Well, why did he do it?” Niedelson questioned.

“Because his Daddy did it.”

The following December, Niedelson was inspired to return to St. James Parish, immerse himself in the local culture, and document the unique bonfire building tradition.

“I decided after seeing the event that I would come back and capture it. Through my research and meeting people at that time, I realized there was a story here that I’m interested in telling. I kept digging, and it became really interesting,” Niedelson said.

From talking with locals, he ascertained that the bonfire custom was carried over from the European ancestors who migrated to the region. Friendly competition allowed the structures to grow more intricate through the generations, and it became a tradition that local families cherished.

Niedelson originally planned for the documentary to be about a specific bonfire builder, but the end result was a story that focused more on the community aspect of the event.

“I can only hope that the tradition keeps going on,” he said. “People really enjoy it down there.”

The film and trailer are also available to view, rent or purchase on the Papa Noel On Demand platform, accessible at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/papanoel

More information about the documentary is available at papanoeldoc.com. A schedule of Louisiana Public Broadcasting programming is available at www.lpb.org.