The Algiers holiday bonfire is a popular community tradition that ushers in the holiday season in a festive atmosphere with music, food and a huge bonfire on the dike. And while everyone enjoys the excitement of watching the campfire burn, few probably have any idea of the planning and passion that goes into the construction of these “campfire sculptures”.
Enter the fire loving NOLA Burners who have been designing and building the campfires of Algiers for the last seven years. NOLA Burners is a New Orleans group that makes an annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert where the idea is to build something big and then burn it down.
They add a great deal of scorching sophistication to the Algiers event, and the bonfire structures are much more than a pile of wood. Each starts as a concept on paper. Once a design is chosen, the exact specifications are determined using a computer program that generates 3D renderings of the design. The computer model helps the builders see the campfire from all sides and creates a blueprint for the most dramatic burn possible.
“We put a lot of effort into the look and feel, but in the end it’s more of a performance piece than a sculpture,” said Brennan Steele, a NOLA distiller who has built and burned more than 30 bonfire sculptures. “It’s best when it’s on fire.”
Steele does the technical design work and creates the computer drawings. He said most of the campfire’s components are built at a local warehouse and then trucked to the fire site to be fully assembled.
Each year the bonfire is a unique work of art, said Eric Arvidson, a NOLA Burner and bonfire artist who has about 60 bonfire sculptures under his belt. He is responsible for creating the concept and theme of each campfire in Algiers. This year’s is a nod to the traditional pyramid-style bonfires set up along the levees in the River Parishes upriver from New Orleans for Christmas Eve celebrations. This bonfire will be nearly three stories tall, the tallest ever erected for the event. This one, he said, is all about a big fire.
“We’re putting a modern twist on old-school design,” said Arvidson. “We cover the outside in chevron patterns and different designs so it looks more than just stacked logs.”
Arvidson and Steele often work together and together they have built and burned more than 20 campfire sculptures. Some of these were transported as far as the Nevada desert before being burned. They do this with the help of a small team of “burners” who have the same satisfaction of building something and then watching it burn.
In previous years, they built and burned down a replica Victorian house, a 20-foot-tall Louisiana cutout, and a giant Christmas pyramid on the Algiers Embankment. Last year’s bonfire was a two-story candle.
“People always ask me if I regret my work going up in flames,” Arvidson said. “I feel a real satisfaction in seeing it finally collapse in on itself and there’s nothing left.”
The annual Algiers Christmas bonfire and free concert are scheduled for Saturday 3 December on the dyke at Algiers Point. The event will feature an expanded holiday arts market, more food vendors than ever and the largest bonfire this festival has ever seen. Festival organizers pushed the time up an hour to accommodate those with earlier bedtimes.
It’s the perfect way to ring in the holiday season, said Kelsey Foster, executive director of the Algiers Economic Development Foundation. She said last year’s bonfire had the biggest turnout ever and they hope to build on that success.
“We’re going to be big on everything this year,” Foster said. “After two years of COVID and then Hurricane Ida, we feel like we’re finally getting back on track and we want to celebrate big.”
Music will be provided by the Young Pinstripe Brass Band and Edna Karr High School Marching Band. The choir of the Catholic Church of All Saints sings Christmas carols.
More than two dozen local artists and craftspeople will set up shop at the arts market, and a variety of food vendors, all from the West Bank, offer plenty of choice.
Foster recommends people from the East Bank take the Algiers Ferry across the river to the campfire, as parking can be difficult at Algiers Point. She said the Regional Transit Authority is increasing ferry capacity for the bonfire but still recommends getting there as early as possible to hear all the music, browse the vendors and food vendors and watch the sun set behind the city skyline. The exact time the bonfire will be lit is a secret, so don’t be late.
When: Saturday, December 3, 4:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m
Where: Algiers Point on the dyke, about 200 Morgan St.
extras: Music, food vendors and more than 25 local artists selling their wares.
Bring folding chairs and blankets.
Visit algierseconomic.com/algiersbonfire for more information.