|To Page 2 >|
Oak Alley Plantation
A Different Holiday ...
It began with a phone call in early November. John informed me that Kristin & Brian wanted Peter and me to be godparents to their daughter, Lexi. That came as a complete, but pleasant surprise. Us? For one thing it would be a Catholic ceremony and we're not Catholics (well, me ... and Peter has not been "practicing" since his high school days). John said, no problem ... just find a church, take a Baptism classs and you're good. Well. It wasn't that easy, but we got lucky and found a sympathetic local priest (Janina's) willing to bend the rules ... and the baptising priest didn't ask too many questions.
Then there was the other part of the deal ... we'd have to go to Louisiana for Christmas because the baptism was the day after. So, a complete mindset shift took place in a matter of minutes. We'd miss our usual Christmas eve and morning with Kurt, Tina, Erin, Kelsey & Joe — something we'd done for many years.
A Louisiana Christmas it would be ... in Vacherie. Lots of family (including Mom), great food and Oak Alley ahead!
We spent our first night in La Place. While John, Peter and Brian played golf in the morning, I found a place to get my wildlife/marsh fix. Then I met Mom and we started the drive (in two cars) over to Vacherie. I wanted to take the River Road route which runs along the Mississippi River, or more accurately, the levee. You can't see the river from the road ... but in that stretch, from La Place, to Reserve to Garyville and the Gramercy Bridge, you do see lots of interesting things. Since it was Christmas Eve, there were the bonfire structures, so painstakingly and artistically built, ready to go up in flames and celebration.
Then there were historic plantation homes (like San Francisco Plantation) and Creole cottages, all kinds and configurations of pipelines, conveyors and chutes from agricultural and petrochemical plants and other mystery facilities stretching across River Road to the loading platforms on the Mississippi. Interesting to see the juxtaposition of the old South with modern industries. Both are important to Louisiana — preserving the culture while embracing the commerce. In most cases, they live in harmony ... the industries maintain a buffer zone so that the historic homes have a sense of isolation and green space around them.
I was very excited about where we'd be staying: Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie. John reserved a cottage (and picked up the tab!) for Peter, Mom & me. It's a glorious place: an allée of magnificent 300-year-old oaks create an archway to the main house, built in 1832 ... so grand and magical. The giant oaks, all over the property, have a mystique about them. Many have thick branches so heavy they are now resting on the ground, and massive root systems that bubble up like rock outcroppings. Pecan, magnolia and crepe myrtle trees were also abundant.
Our cottage was perfect ... a little house with everything we needed; the charm and ambiance came free of charge. How lucky to be staying at such a place.
Home & Hearth
It was late afternoon when we finally arrived at the Ricard family homestead. Seventeen people (and one dog) were staying at Helen's home, a typical Christmas in Vacherie. Lexi had grown since I'd first met her — a happy, healthy baby — Mom and Peter were seeing her for the first time. Lori had taken on the head chef position, and along her mom and sisters, had prepared fantastic food (including gumbo and crawfish étouffée) for three days and lots of people. She even made printed menus that were posted in the kitchen.
That night was the bonfire lighting, a big occasion along River Road every Christmas Eve. I kept wondering and asking about the origin ... no one seemed to know for sure. Then in Vestiges of Grandeur, a great book about River Road plantations, I found this:
It is believed that the European practice of solstice bonfires is the basis for the local tradition, with the winter solstice date shifted to Christmas Eve. The River Road bonfire tradition has been documented as far back as the nineteenth century. In Cajun oral tradition, the bonfires light the way for "Papa Noel," their version of Santa Claus. Though popular and endearing, this is not the likely origin, because the bonfire tradition predates Papa Noel.
Bottom line: no one knows. But we do know it's great fun ... and kept us all warm on a cold (for Louisiana) night. Lexi couldn't take her eyes off the fire. Mark and Aw set off mini fireworks in the yard. It was a great place to be on Christmas Eve.