Bonfires on the Beach
One of the best loved traditions on the Mississippi coast - a bonfire on the beach to welcome in the new year.
- story by Rebecca Orfila
As the party reached the midnight hour, Clay draped his dress coat over Lucy’s shoulder and led her outside to his family’s bonfire. With the fire blazing and sparks flying in the wind, Clay kneeled and asked the young woman in the navy dress to be his wife in the new year. The year was 1927. The bonfire proposal apparently made a good impression: Clay and Lucy were married for forty years.
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.