Louisiana’s Cajun country, especially St. James Parish, is known for a few longstanding Christmas traditions. We’re talking big, blazing bonfires, hot, savory gumbo, and of course, unique songs and stories. To put it simply, Christmas in Louisiana Cajun country is unlike anywhere else.
Since we’re nearing Dec. 25, we’re sharing a few of our favorite Cajun Christmas traditions. What holiday traditions does your family love?
No tradition is better-known to outsiders than the custom of lighting bonfires along the Mississippi River levee. Towering high over onlookers (most top out at 20 feet), these giant pyres are constructed mostly by the town’s young men. It’s a dangerous job, but someone’s got to do it!
According to LouisianaFolkLife.org, the tradition of Christmas bonfire-building originated in France. In the mid-1800s, it came to Louisiana with the Marists, a Catholic sect. Soon, the bonfire tradition was bumped up a bit from New Year’s Eve to Christmas.
As families watch the fires burn, they share bowls of hot gumbo and sing songs, which leads us to our next favorite Cajun Christmas tradition…
You might be familiar with “The 12 Yats of Christmas,” a funny take on “The 12 Days of Christmas” starring New Orleans-isms in place of the traditional partridge, pear tree, and assorted other items.
But if you haven’t heard “The Cajun 12 Days of Christmas,” you’re missing out. This mild-mannered classic homes in on Cajun traditions like pousse-café digestif cocktails, stuffed shrimp, and poule d’eau (water fowl that live in the swamps).
And how could we forget “The Cajun Night Before Christmas,” by Howard Jacobs and illustrated by James Rice? Written in a style that makes it easy to speak in a “Cajun” accent, this long-beloved classic imagines what St. Nick might be like if he were from the bayou.
Blogger Father Mike notes that the traditional Cajun Christmas meal is chicken gumbo. After attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Cajun families gathered (and some still do) around the stove for a bowl of gumbo.
Some say the reason Cajuns incorporate gumbo into nearly every community gathering is because in the past, when there might not have been enough to eat, families would bring what they had and throw it into a big pot. Next, they’d add spices—making sure to include lots of pepper. The resulting tasty hodgepodge was enough to feed everyone.
These days, you might want to plan your gumbo ingredients a little more. You can spice it up with some of Aunt Sally’s gourmet Cajun seasonings.
Are there any Cajun Christmas traditions we missed? Let us know!