Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Yuletide Joy of Unregulated Pyrotechnics

This year, instead of flying home right away for my white Colorado Christmas, my parents flew down to Louisiana to partake of a New Orleans Christmastime. 

New Orleans has a very particular set of seasonal activities. Kind of like Liam Neeson in Taken, except, instead of finding you and killing you, they attract you and make you drunk and possibly burn you to death. 

First, there's the caroling in Jackson Square, the post-card-pretty heart of the French Quarter. I went to this by my lonesome, since my folks didn't arrive until the following day, and there I found everyone else in the entire city. At least, all the white people. Apparently organized caroling is a fairly whitebread activity. Who knew? 

Once jostled into the crowd inside the Square, someone handed me a song pamphlet and an unlit candle with a paper skirt, like the kind at a Good Friday service. It was windy, so I was going to just hold my candle as a sigil as we sang, but a kindly elderly man next to me leaned over to light my candle with his. 

I know he was just being nice and sharing his holiday spirit. But when he bent his candle to light mine, what must have been a liter of hot wax spilled from the top of his candle all over my arm. The man smiled at me and wished me a Merry Christmas as my wick flickered to life. I bit my lip and grimace-smiled back at him as my arm began to blister. 

We sang some Christmas tunes. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is apparently not a horrible singer. The whole city failed to reach the high notes on "Holy Night." Oh, and also: everyone was drunk. There was so much booze and so many open flames and so many people stumbling over themselves in the Square that I thought for sure we had an incendiary situation on our hands. 

Contrary to the laws of physics and luck, everyone survived, and my parents arrived the next day to enjoy the time-honored Celebration of the Oaks at City Park. This was a charming black hole of electrical energy, where millions of colored lights arranged in fanciful displays (there was a UNICORN!) attract humans like bug zappers attract...bugs. 

Then came Christmas Eve, and the bonfires on the levee. This is an old Cajun tradition: the building of massive pyres on the levees in Grammercy and Lutcher to light the way for Papa Noel, the Santa Claus of the bayou. We drove about an hour outside the city and, when we reached the river, found this: 

That is a sixty-foot-high wooden structure, packed with fireworks and newspaper, doused with gasoline, and draped in lights and entire strings of firecrackers. This was the first of 110 pyres built on top of the levee, constructed by a family who has been keeping this tradition for 57 years. When I asked if they take the lights of before setting it ablaze, the man stopped mid-kerosene-pour and stared at me like I'd grown another head. "It were five dollars," he said slowly. And that was how I realized that this tradition was unconcerned with environmental impact. This lesson was reinforced throughout the evening. 

Mom and Dad and I wandered up the levee as the sun set, talking to the families who built the pyres, as people trickled in from all over and house parties began to drop various basses across the road from the levee. At seven, the fire marshal (possibly the only representative of law and order on the scene) gave the signal, and the pyres were lit. 

Many of the pyres were covered with fire crackers and packed with fireworks, in addition to being soaked with various accelerants. The next half hour was brilliantly lit and ridiculously loud. 

Every one of those lights on the ground is an individual pyre. It was chaos. Children and dogs and liquor and fire and explosions everywhere. It seemed to me like a tradition that should post a death toll every year, but it was also beautiful and interesting and charming and holy crap the smoke inhalation alone probably shortened my life by half a decade. And so in closing, because it's Christmas and apparently the holidays impede my ability to write amusing posts, I'll leave you to regret the fact that your Christmas didn't involve imminent death by collapsing burning viking Santa pyre.