Louisiana is known globally for its rich culture, often showcased through Cajun and Creole foodways, Jazz music, Mardi Gras parades and more. But beyond these well-honed examples are countless under-the-radar traditions that also demonstrate Louisiana’s uniqueness. In every corner of the state, lie hidden cultural gems that will surprise you.
One of the most beautiful and powerful Christmas traditions in Louisiana is the Bonfires on the Levee celebration taking place along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve. Weeks before Christmas, locals in St. James and St. John the Baptist Parishes assemble intricate towers of cut wood, and in some cases, artfully designed wooden sculptures of planes, pelicans, alligators and more, all of which will be set ablaze simultaneously the night before Christmas. Parents tell children that the purpose of the bonfires is to lead the way for Papa Noël, but the real reason stems back to the days before electricity, when bonfires would lead the large numbers of Catholic residents to midnight Mass.
In the north Louisiana town of Zwolle, Louisiana’s diverse cultural influences are made clear. Once part of New Spain, this community was an outpost for Spanish soldiers who traveled back and forth from here through Texas and south to Mexico. Many of them remained in the area and married Native Americans, and their descendants are still in Zwolle today. Rooted in Mesoamerica, the portable tamale was one of the soldier’s favorite foods. It later became a mainstay of the community, and is still Zwolle’s most proud tradition. Tamales are the centerpiece of the annual fall Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, a major event that draws visitors by the thousands. The town is also home to several cottage industry tamale makers and to the E.B. Tamale Company, which sells commercial tamales throughout the Gulf South.
A centuries-old tradition in fishing communities across the world, the blessing of the fleet is a community gathering in which local clergy say a blessing over fishermen and their ships in the hope of a bountiful catch and a safe trip home. That tradition remains today in many of Louisiana’s coastal fishing communities. Louisiana’s blessing of the fleet takes place in the spring when shrimpers prepare to head out into the Gulf of Mexico for the start of brown shrimp season. Catholic priests bless the vessels of Cajun shrimpers, who set off to catch their share of America’s number one selling seafood. In many cases, these springtime blessings are also accompanied by local festivals that can include decorated boats on parade.
Perhaps nowhere else in the United States are cemeteries considered as trip-worthy as they are in Louisiana. In New Orleans, historic cemetery tours reveal the quirky pageantry assigned to that city’s intricate above-ground graves and the historic figures and cultural icons buried there. In Baton Rouge, you can visit both the modest grave of bluesman Slim Harpo and the showy final resting place of Governor Huey P. Long on the grounds of the state capitol. But in Vernon Parish, you find something really unusual: grave “shelters” in Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, a historic site that preserves an odd tradition. Here, 13 graves are covered with intricate wooden shelters that resemble small houses. Their purpose is uncertain, but they were likely built in the 1860s by the families who settled in this part of the state.
The Cajun Prairie, west of Lafayette, is home to a rich equine culture that dates back more than 250 years when Creole and Cajun residents worked on the ranches across the area. Since then, horses have remained a cornerstone of rural life and leisure activity. While traditional ranches are now rare, there remains strong tradition of Creole cowboys, Cajun jockeys and Mardi Gras revelers from the town of Mamou, whose celebration takes place on horseback. And for decades, Creole trail rides have been a significant part of life in the African American community. They take place on weekends in spring and fall and include a procession on horseback, zydeco music, dancing and food.
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