LUTCHER, La. -- Tonight, the Mississippi River in bayou country will look much as it has in more than a century of Christmas Eves -- with miles of massive bonfires on the levee tops showing Papa Noel, the south Louisiana Santa Claus, the way to children's homes.
For hurricane evacuees like Rhonda Derenbecker, who lost her home, her office, two cars, and nearly every other possession, the sight of something so spectacularly enduring will be more than welcome.
Watching locals work on one of the roughly 100 tepee-shaped structures set up along historic River Road, the attorney from Bay St. Louis, Miss., said she was grateful she and her 12-year-old son found comfort with family and newfound friends in a unique part of the world.
''I couldn't have asked for a better place to land," she said, wiping tears from eyes.
Residents of Lutcher, Gramercy, and Paulina, about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans, have spent weeks building the bonfires, which attract thousands of spectators.
''I don't know what Christmas would be like without bonfires," said Gerard Roper, who wove bushels of Louisiana cane reed into the 20-foot-tall pile he will torch on Christmas Eve.
Most residents follow the same tradition and build tepee-style bonfires, but some stray for more eye-catching designs. One of this year's big attractions is a helicopter, complete with propellers made of PVC pipe and silver duct tape, dedicated to the air rescue workers who retrieved people from roofs in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Dozens of Katrina evacuees are expected to celebrate Christmas Eve on the levee, which provides a barrier between the Mississippi River and the many historic homes, such as Oak Alley Plantation, that dot River Road.
Although the bonfire tradition's origin isn't certain, some say it's carried on from French and German customs and sugarcane harvest celebrations. Others say the bonfires originally served as a lighted path for midnight Mass travelers in the fog-prone area.
But ask any child here, and they have another reason: to illuminate the river so that Papa Noel can find their homes.
There was some concern after Hurricane Katrina as to whether federal inspectors would allow the fires because of the wear-and-tear on the levees -- some of which broke in New Orleans after the Aug. 29 storm, flooding the city. Some restrictions are in place, such as the number of vehicles allowed to be driven on the levee at each bonfire site, but no one seems to mind.
''We need this levee," Roper said. ''We respect it."
The bonfires can take anywhere from one day to several weeks to build, and typically are framed with four to six willow tree trunks. They once rose as high as 35 to 40 feet, but now can't exceed 20 feet, Roper said.
Once the frame is erected, it's stuffed with driftwood, sticks, and scraps of lumber. This year, Roper said he didn't have to cut down as many trees because of Hurricane Katrina.
''A man in Paulina called me, said he had some trees down in his yard, so that's where a lot of our wood came from," Roper said.
Breeze Vicknair of Lutcher drove up to the wooden helicopter this week and let her 18-month-old nephew, Kaiden Keller, play in the ''cockpit." ''I love the detail," Vicknair said. ''And I think it's a nice tribute to our military."