St. Rose family has lit the way for Santa Claus for last 24 years

Around 150 people travel to view annual bonfire

Glen Nelson was 16 years old when he first got the idea to build a bonfire for the holidays. At that time, it was supposed to be a small bonfire in the backyard for Halloween.

Today, Nelson has grown into a 40-year-old man—and the fire has grown into a 20-foot-tall Christmas Eve inferno.

“It’s tradition,” laughs Michael’s mother, Margaret. “We have to light the way for Santa Claus.”

Started in 1990, Margaret said her three sons have now built the massive holiday fire for 24 years. For the first one, she said, both the St. Rose Volunteer Fire Department and members of the St. Charles Parish Sheriffs Office came out to inspect. To this day, she said she has the paperwork showing that it is perfectly legal to have a once-a-year fire for “celebratory” purposes.

Glenl is the oldest of three brothers who have been working on the fire. Margaret said she remembers that the youngest one, now 28, was frequently told to get out of the way of his older brothers. In retaliation, Margaret said, the youngest one built his own small fire. The three have been working together since.

“When they started, they had nothing…they would just go out there with a saw or an axe,” Margaret said.

Today, two of the Margaret’s sons, including the youngest, own a disaster recovery business.

“They have trucks and chainsaws and means of hauling and everything else,” Margaret said.

The process has become something of a local legend. Each year, then Nelson men begin around Thanksgiving, assembling a pyramid-shaped structure with tree-sized logs on the outside, and brush and smaller branches stuffed into the middle.

“Getting the wood was easier this year, the oldest just bought some property,” said Margaret.

Margaret said her husband then cooks up a large pot of gumbo for visitors and, at 7:30 p.m., the fire is lit. According to Michael, however, it’s not that simple.

“Every year Santa flies over and the reindeer shoot an electric spark into the fire,” joked Glen.

Once lit, the fire brings anywhere from 100 to 150 guests. The Nelson family invites anyone who would like to join in on the festivities. Guests have hailed from as far away as Albuquerque, N.M. and New York City.

One year, Margaret said, the boys were traveling for Thanksgiving and could not begin the fire. People came by inquiring about the empty space where the bonfire pile should be.

“They didn’t start until a couple of weeks before Christmas, but they did it,” Margaret said.

The Nelson family said they invite anyone join them Christmas Eve at their place on River Road, between St. Rose and Destrehan. If you’re driving after 7:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, you likely won’t miss them—theirs will be the house with the giant bonfire in front.

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