Bonfires on the Beach
- story by Rebecca Orfila
Clay Knight and his brothers gathered early on a snapping cold, breezy morning to combine their stashes of wood and pine knots. Between the five of them, the bounty of wood augured well for the last evening of the year. The Knight men planned to build a pyramid-shaped bonfire on the beach of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The task was completed before noon.
It was New Year’s Eve! Clay planned a unique evening for his special sweetheart, Lucy Dyar. She was coming in on the train from Mobile to stay with her aunt in downtown Pass Christian. Her favorite party dress, the blue one, was packed in her luggage for the New Year’s Eve party at the yacht club.
In this country today, many traditions celebrate the new year. The ball falls at Times Square, resolutions are made, kisses are shared, fireworks burst in bright colors in the sky. On the Mississippi coastline, the bonfires still burn brightly.
People have lit bonfires in celebration or for sacred events for as long as we have used fire: funeral pyres, sacred rites, and even attempts to stave off plague have all led humans to light big fires.
Louisiana’s River Road and bayous to guide Papa Noel have bonfires on Christmas Eve, the Epiphany, July 4, Mardi Gras, Good Friday, and New Year’s Eve. Here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we often light fires to celebrate those important holidays and other special days.
Bay St. Louis is no exception; a January 1, 2006 MSNBC feature showed a bonfire on the beach across the street from Buccaneer State Park. It had been created by tired relief workers. Dozens of the volunteers celebrated the New Year with songs and prayers for a smoother 2006. They came back the next day to clear the burned remains of the fire and return to clearing more of the rubble left by Hurricane Katrina.
The beaches in Hancock County now host more bonfires than ever before. In 2015, Waveland joined Bay St. Louis in allowing bonfires on beaches within city limits. Both cities require permits and deposits (see details below).
And since fireworks are legal most years (they're sometimes locally banned because of drought conditions), the bonfires become a hub for families celebrating the incoming year with a little razzle-dazzle. Too much trouble? In Harrison County, there's even a new service that will build one for you, and even clean up afterward.
But if you're not invited to a bonfire gathering on New Year's Eve and you're not up to building your own, don't mope. This is one coast tradition that's easily appreciated, even from a distance. As midnight approaches, take a walk along the beachfront for a memorable - and brightly burning - welcome to another year.