Merry Christmas Welcome to my new feature . . .
I chose to begin my road trip visiting Ellen Byron and her great series. She just happens to have a great cozy Christmas read to share with us.
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A Lagniappe About A Cajun Christmas Killing “Lagniappe” is a Louisiana term that means “a little something extra.” For me, it’s a way of sharing some personal anecdotes about the wonderful region that inspired my Cajun Country Mystery series. The bonfires on the Mississippi levee are an extraordinary Christmas tradition that I recommend everyone experience at least once in their lifetime. Families, friends, and even coworkers spend weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve building the bonfires. As I write in this book, most are pyramids of logs stacked upward of thirty feet. Some people get whimsical and build bonfires shaped like a plantation home, or they rope together stacks of cane reed that snap, crackle, and pop 294 Ellen Byron when lit. During a recent visit, I even saw a bonfire shaped like a pirate ship. Many of the bonfires are laced with strands of firecrackers that add a noisy festivity when the bonfires are lit at seven pm on Christmas Eve. The river roads on both sides of the Mississippi are lined with enthusiastic onlookers who alternate between viewing the bonfires and celebrating at potluck parties packed with delicious homemade Cajun dishes. Bonfires are built up and down the Mississippi on both sides of the river, but the highest concentration is found in St. James Parish, around Gramercy (where we partied), Lutcher, and Paulina. The origin of this tradition is murky. Some trace it all the way back to ancient Europe, where bonfires celebrated the end of a harvest. Others say that in previous centuries the bonfires were a way of guiding boats up the tricky Mississippi River during the holidays. But the most popular explanation of the bonfires on the levee is that they guide Papa Noel’s way to the homes of Cajun children on Christmas Eve. My dream of experiencing the levee bonfires finally came true thanks to a contest sponsored by the River Parishes Tourist Commission. The fabulous prize included a B and B stay, gift cards, swag, and most importantly, a chance to view the bonfires from a private party at a home on the East River Road. The weather was bad on Christmas Eve, and the bonfires were touch and go up until the last minute. My husband, daughter, and I said silent prayers that the event would take place as scheduled and not be postponed until New Year’s Eve when we’d no longer be in town. Luckily, despite a persistent drizzle, the celebration was on. 295 A Cajun Christmas Killing Our hosts were an extended family of adult Cajun siblings who join forces every year to throw a legendary party. Guests may bring sides and desserts, but the family provides the main courses—a variety of jambalayas and gumbos that were hands down the best versions of these dishes I’ve ever eaten. A cry went up from the crowd when the first bonfire was lit, and fireworks exploded from a location down by the river. One by one, the bonfires burst into flames, setting off the firecrackers. I ran from one to another like a kid, getting soaking wet and covered in ash. The smoke haze became so thick, I couldn’t see the person next to me as I slipped and stumbled on the wet levee grass. I shared every aspect of this adventure with Maggie Crozat—including the shower I had to take before attending Christmas Eve Mass. It was one of the most exciting events of my life. * I wanted to share something else with you inspired by a reallife incident. Recently, my daughter and I toured Laura, a Creole plantation on the West River Road. The tour guide told a story about how the family that built the manor house managed to skirt some laws imposed by American rule after the 1804 Louisiana Purchase. “In Louisiana,” she said with a sly wink in a husky smoker’s voice, “we only follow the rules we like.” In a few words, the tour guide summed up a quirky attitude specific to Louisiana. I loved this line so much I gave those exact words to sometime-police chief Rufus Durand. While we’re on the subject of Laura, if you’re considering a visit to Plantation Country, I recommend touring both a 296 Ellen Byron Creole and an American plantation. Laura and Oak Alley are two of several that offer in-depth tours of the former; for the latter, plan a visit to a plantation like Houmas House or Nottoway. You’ll come away with a greater understanding of the differences between the two cultures. And don’t leave the area without visiting Whitney, the only plantation in Louisiana focused solely on slavery. The tour may be heartwrenching, but it’s essential.
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