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Christmas Reads from Down the Bayou

December 16, 2009

Being from down the bayou in south Louisiana, I have a great many regional tales to remember and retell during the holidays. My favorite is the story of Papa Noel, or Pere Noel, as he is sometimes called. The Cajun families who live along the Mississippi River anxiously await the arrival of their version of Santa Claus every Christmas Eve.

Somewhere back in time, no one knows exactly when, the legend of Papa Noel and the bonfires crept into the holiday traditions here. Basically, from the day after Thanksgiving right until Christmas Eve groups of men and boys (and today women and girls) have built teepee-shaped bonfires atop the levee that hems in the mighty river. On Christmas Eve, these fires are lit and a long party ensues on the levee – until it is time to put the children to bed or attend midnight mass. The legend goes that the only way Papa Noel will find the good children along the river is by following the path of the bonfires – which put out a strong beacon in the dark and the fog.

Our bonfires represent our own version of Rudolph’s red nose – which is important because in many of our tales Papa Noel is pulled in a pirogue by a clan of alligators – not reindeer. Two books that give us a Cajun Santa are the now classic Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair and the newer Legend of Papa Noel by Terri Hoover Dunham. Both are wonderful picture books for the holiday season.

In The Cajun Night Before Christmas, written in a stiff Cajun dialect that takes a little getting used to if you aren’t familiar, we are treated to a distinctly French Louisiana version of Clement Moore’s classic. With a Santa who dresses in muskrat, rides in a skiff pulled by French named alligators and who takes perhaps too many nips of blackberry wine, this tale is a wonderful read aloud – if you can pull off the dialect.

The Legend of Papa Noel tells the story of the bonfires more directly – and includes a beautiful white alligator, Nicolette. The white alligator is a rare occurrence in the Louisiana swamp. It isn’t an albino, it is the result of an unusual genetic abnormality that leaves the gator with white skin pigmentation and blue eyes. Dunham did a wonderful job with this story and the illustrations are beautiful.

There are many great Christmas traditions from around the world and I’m happy to have grown up with one of the truly unique customs that accompany the Yuletide season. How about you – do you have any unique Christmas customs from your neck of the wo

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