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Bonfired Up

Running Round [cropped]

There’s nothing I want to do on New Year’s Eve except run around the Christmas-tree bonfire on Orleans Avenue. New Year’s Eve is usually a big let-down, but the bonfire is fantastic. I would probably just stay home otherwise.

According to some accounts, this is a tradition that’s been going on for close to a hundred years. But now the City of New Orleans wants to shut it down.

Bonfire Flyer

In the year’s I’ve attended, there’s been a huge crowd, pretty wild, with tons of fireworks. A few people are bound to have gotten hurt. And discharging fireworks is illegal in Orleans Parish.

But having said all that, some things are more important than safety and good sense. This is not just a party, it’s time-honored community celebration, a sacred ritual. I really need to run around that bonfire. It may be illegal and dangerous — but I don’t care.

Remember, running around the bonfire ensures good luck in the coming year. If they shut it down they are essentially condemning us to a year of bad luck. It’s not just tradition at stake here!

Many of my neighbors are getting pretty fired up about this. It’s too symbolic to pass quietly. Symbols matter. I expect there will be quite a turnout for the meeting Monday night. And I suspect there will be a bonfire on Orleans Avenue this New Year’s Eve.

I do care about the immediate neighbors on Orleans Avenue. If they want it shut down, well, I can’t say I blame them. I’d respect their wishes. But if they largely support the bonfire in some form, then the best approach is harm reduction. The bonfire’s gonna happen, so how can it be made as safe as possible?

See also:

Update: Having talked about this with a few people, including a friend in city government, I’m convinced this is a classic example of a clash between a folk tradition and modern society. The salient questions which those in authority will ask simply have no good answers. Who is organizing the event? Who’s responsible? Who’s liable? Who do we talk to about this? Sorry, there’s no one. This is an event that’s evolved organically over time. There are no ringleaders, there is no formal organization. In the past, fire trucks have stood at the ready to douse the fire and to prevent it from spreading. Obviously some authorities knew about the event and even tacitly enabled it. But now that (for whatever reason) the issue has been dragged into the spotlight of public scrutiny, there is of course only one coherent position for authorities to take. They have to say no. They have to; it’s their only coherent position as sworn upholders of law and order. But rationality is overrated. Sometimes it’s better to be right than coherent.

Another Update: Sheldon Fox called me last night wanting an interview; I referred him to Michael Homan and Mark Folse. There’s a petition which some folks are planning to print and present at the meeting Monday. This story was on the front page of the paper, and they also ran a story about the fire in the blogosphere.

Published inNeighborsNew OrleansOur House


  1. Puddinhead Puddinhead

    See? You get it. The sentiments in your post are exactly why I continue to fire off my 9mm into the air at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Everybody in the Ninth Ward neighborhood I grew up in has been ringing in the new year with gunfire for decades…it’s a New Orleans tradition. Every now and then somebody gets hurt–I mean, like every so many years you hear about somebody getting hit by a falling bullet, but not every year. I mean, most people DON’T get hit by falling bullets, right? So I figure the tradition aspects of it far outweigh the public safety aspects. Because nothing says “Happy New Year!” like a long night of alcohol consumption topped off with a furious discharge of firearms.

    Except maybe a long night of alcohol consumption topped off with a raging fire in a windy residential neighborhood! Happy New Year, y’all!!

  2. Puddinhead Puddinhead

    Lazy, so this is my cut-and-pasted reply from elsewhere…..

    “That, of course, was almost unadulterated snark. While we were pretty much surrounded by discharging weapons at my Ninth Ward home, I did not in fact join in. Truth be told, I’ve never even fired a weapon.

    But we did have a yearly bonfire in the Winn Dixie parking lot across the street (before Winn Dixie expanded to take up the whole lot), using the traditional Christmas tree fuel. What memories, and good times. There was only that one time when the sparks flew in that guy’s kitchen window and caught the curtains on fire…but he put it out by himself before coming over to confront whoever was responsible for setting his house ablaze, so it was all good. Oh, and there was that one other year when my Dad set himself on fire…but he eventually remembered the whole “Stop, drop, and roll” bit, so he put himself out after a while. My Mom took him up to the emergency room…it was touch and go, but he made it through the next few days, and then they said he was really likely to survive. Some skin grafts, and about four months in Hotel Dieu and a couple of years of followup medical visits and he was good as new. Well…maybe not “good as new”…but hey, it was tradition. What else could we do?”

  3. Beth Beth


    I don’t know what accounts are saying this is a century-old tradition (I keep seeing that on posts supporting the bonfire tradition). I lived 1/2 block off Orleans for 15 years and not once was there a bonfire. This was in my teens, and a bonfire would have been exactly what I and my friends would have been drawn to. I’ve spoken with other friends who grew up in the neighborhood and no one remembers this before sometime in the early 1990s. If people had been staging a bonfire, shooting off massive fireworks and dancing naked in the neutral ground for 100 years, jeez, don’t you think we’d all have noticed by now?

    That being said, I support continuing the bonfire – without the fireworks. It doesn’t have to be mythologized as some century-old tradition to be worth keeping. New traditions are good, too.

  4. RW RW

    The myth is that it only existed since the 1990s. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t notice back then, but I can assure you that from someone who grew up right across the street from the bonfire it is clear that there has not been a year missed in at least 45 years. Elders say 80-90. True it has grown in size, and as it has grew more attention was drawn to the tradition as more were invited and more attended.

  5. Beth Beth

    I hear you, RW, and since I posted earlier I’ve talked with a few people who remember it that way. But still, what we enjoy now, since the 90s essentially, is something very different than a small gathering of neighborhood families. If it’s going to continue, some of the new twists will probably have to be eliminated or reined in – fireworks among them.

  6. Very funny, Puddinhead. (Where’ve you been lately by the way?) But you miss the mark on this one. I think my neighbor Terry Tilson said it best:

    “Every year a couple of people die during Mardi Gras. A kid getting run down by a truck or someone falling off the float… not adding the shootings which took place in the crowd for the past two year… SO it seems to me that Mardi Gras parades are more dangerous that any bonfires so far, so why don’t they just stop this tradition also when they are at it? Hey prevention and safety first…”

  7. Queen XXIV Queen XXIV

    Liberty or Safety?

    In the words of Ben Franklin:

    “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
    February 1775

    What a shame what we may be losing…..

  8. Frank Schiav Frank Schiav

    I’m okay with the Bonfire[s], but I would like it much more if it were fireworks free. They are a lot more like safety hazards to local homes & such and more likely to get out of control.

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