Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Cajun Christmas

With no plans to spend the holidays with family, we went in search of a place to spend a memorable Christmas. We found just that in southern Louisiana. We made our way to Convent, this tiny town along the Mississippi River that's located about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Our home for the holiday has been Poché Plantation.

Yes, we're parked on a former plantation! In the mid-1800s, the land upon which we are parked was a 160-acre sugar plantation. In 1867, Judge Felix Poché built this Victorian-style house, where he lived until 1882. In addition to being an accomplished attorney and associate justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Judge Poché went on to become one of the 100 lawyers to found the American Bar Association.

The home was purchased by its current owners in 2005. In 2006, the historic home provided shelter to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Today the grounds feature guest cottages and 85 RV sites that offer all the comforts of home.

The day before Christmas, we joined owner Mark for a tour of the plantation house. Mark is quite the storyteller! He's the first to admit that at least half of what he says isn't exactly true, but it's all fun. Here it looks like Paul doesn't exactly believe the story Mark was sharing.

Every plantation has at least one ghost, and Poché is no exception. Mark explained how he saw the ghost in this room. We spotted it, too! Can you?

After our tour, we took a drive down the River Road to check out the final preparations that were being made on 20-foot bonfire structures like this one. (The red "ribbons" are firecrackers!)

Here in St. James Parish, it's tradition to get together with your family, friends and neighbors between Thanksgiving and Christmas to build a bonfire structure along the river. Each Christmas Eve, hundreds of bonfires are set along the river. This Cajun tradition has a long and colorful history. As the story goes, long ago on Christmas Eve a dense fog rolled into Southern Louisiana. The fog was so thick that Papa Noel and his pirogue pulled by eight alligators, Gaston, Tiboy, Pierre, Alcee, Ninette, Suzette, Celeste and Renee, couldn't make their way down the river. Papa Noel called on Nicolette, a snowy white alligator with glowing red eyes to lead the way, but it was still too difficult to see. But, the people of the river parishes saved the night by building bonfires along the river to guide Papa Noel along the way.

Most of the bonfires are built in the traditional pyramid shape. Many include individual touches that display everything from patriotism... holiday spirit.

A few structures, like this giant 4-by-4, are unique feats of engineering!

Our Christmas Eve began with a visit to St. Michael the Archangel Church, which is next door to the plantation. This grand church, built in the 1820s, is known for its interior grotto modeled after the famous grotto in Lourdes, France, but constructed of sugar cane. The church is also home to Louisiana's oldest playable organ, which was constructed by Henry Erben in 1857. The church is still active today, serving the needs of some 200 parish families.

This nativity, located on the serene campus of the Manresa House of Retreats, is a popular Christmas Eve stop for visitors along the River Road.

The river town of Paulina lays claim to being the birthplace of "Christmas on the River." Each Christmas eve, residents along a three-mile stretch of River Road between Paulina and Gramercy open their homes to family, friends and strangers to enjoy Cajun food, music and Christmas cheer. It was all very festive.

As the magic hour of 7 p.m. approached, we parked ourselves on the levee between two of the kerosene-soaked pyramids and waited for the fun to begin. The crowds and anticipation grew. We knew we were in for something special. As the clock struck 7, a wave of cheers, fireworks, flame and smoke made its way up the river.

Our "neighbors" went to work setting their creation ablaze. Suddenly we were standing between two flaming towers with firecrackers shooting every which way!

After the initial excitement of the lighting, the bonfires provided a festive glow along the river as we made our way back to our rolling home.

With our snowflake lights and tiny tree, Bullwinkle was looking quite festive.

One of the presents under our tree was a new point-and-shoot camera for me. I had fun practicing with the "pet portrait" setting. Doesn't our girl kitty look angelic?

Here's our boy kitty doing what he does best: relaxing!

Our Christmas Day was quite relaxing. After our celebratory dinner, we enjoyed a Skype call with Paul's brother and his family. It was their first time on Skype, and the group asked if they looked like "The Brady Bunch". We did see some similarities, but most of all it was fun to spend some holiday time with them all.

There are several historic plantations in the area that are open for tours. Yesterday, we visited Houma's House Plantation and Gardens up the road in Darrow. This lovely spot is named after its first owners, the indigenous Houmas Indians. Construction on the mansion was completed in 1828 by Colonel John Preston and his wife Caroline. By the late 1800s, the plantation was producing 20 million pounds of sugar each year. Houmas House fell into disrepair after the Great Depression. Dr. George Crozat purchased the place in 1940, renovated it and opened it tourists. In 1963, the house was the setting for the Bette Davis film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. New Orleans businessman Kevin Kelly purchased the house in 2003 and restored it to its 1840 splendor.

This is a special time to visit Houmas House. The spirit of Christmas can be found everywhere.

Our tour was led by Miss Judy, who educated and entertained everyone and invited us to really get to know this special house.

The interior was beautiful, festive and homey. In addition to being a top tourist attraction, Houmas House is actually Mr. Kelly's home.

The front yard of the house is graced with a lovely alley of centuries-old oak trees.

After our tour inside the house, we wandered through the expansive gardens on the property. Even in winter, these outdoor spaces are beautiful. We also enjoyed a nice lunch at Houmas restaurant.

We've managed to sample some mighty fine Cajun cooking during our stay. Frisco Deli is a hole in the wall in nearby La Place serves up a tasty po'boy and yummy gumbo. (Any place that has three state trooper vehicles outside is worth a stop, provided there's no evidence of criminal activity, of course.)

Tonight we wandered up the road to another hole-in-the-wall, Hymel's. Every Thursday night, this 60-plus year-old local spot serves up an endless helping of fresh boiled shrimp and fried catfish. Yummy stuff!

Our tasty seafood was accompanied with a "fishbowl" of ice cold beer and live Cajun music. Life doesn't get much better!

After dinner, our friends Sue and Doug checked in on us from British Columbia. On Skype (our new best friend) we exchanged holiday greetings and caught up on each other's latest news. We even got to say hello to their daughter Carlie. It was great to see everybody!

After a most enjoyable holiday week on a plantation, filled with bonfires, music, tasty food and virtual visits from family and friends, our Cajun Christmas is definitely one to remember.


Sue B said...

you are just a 'blogging machine'...nice work doing all the catching up! are almost done!!

Anonymous said...

I thank you for your kind words....

Mark J Anderson
Professional Storyteller