By Karen Ribeiro
Exploring the ways in which holidays are celebrated can offer a quick peek into a culture and what makes it unique. Have you ever wondered what holidays are celebrated in Haiti? Which ones are similar to America or Europe and which ones are truly unique? Let’s take a bird’s eye look at a dozen or so holidays celebrated in Haiti over the course of a year.
New Year’s Day
We begin with New Year’s Day, noted by many sources as the biggest party of the year for native Haitians. And, like many Haitian holidays, the festivities continue for a whole week with flowers and lights decorating their homes. Blogger Ibi Zoboi, a Haitian woman from Florida, offers a mouth-watering and poignant description of this holiday and the rich significance it carries beyond the simple welcoming of another calendar year.
“It’s no wonder that every holiday when my family gets together around a perfectly set table complete with a holiday ham adorned with pineapple slices and cherries, a pot of stewed turkey, a platter of diri ak djon djon (black rice), fried plantains, yucca, and cassava, and after passing around the bottle of Rhum Barbancourt, the heated, heavily accented discussion almost always starts with, “Okay, let me tell you why Haiti is the way it is.”
You see, New Year’s Day marks each anniversary of Haiti’s independence from the French and the birth of the world’s first black independent nation. To celebrate independence, Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicite, the wife of revolutionary leader Jean-Jacque Dessalines, proclaimed that on this day no Haitian should go without a bowl of pumpkin soup (soup joumou), another colorful and delicious item on the New Year’s Day menu.
Many Haitian holidays are loosely defined, meaning they appear on some calendars and not others one year and the next year could be different. Holidays could also be considered a Christian celebration or a Vodou celebration or both. Upon reviewing a few calendars, a few stand out as definitive fixed holidays. Aside from New Years Day, these are:
January 2: Ancestors Day or Hero’s Day, also referred to as “breaking the cakes” (case gateaux)
May 18: Flag day or Feeding of Grande Aloumandia
November 2: All Souls Day or the Guede loa
November 18: Battle of Vertieres (Batay Vètyè) or Army Day
December 5: Discovery of Haiti by Christopher Columbus
December 25: Christmas
Overall, when you consider tourists, the largest celebration in Haiti is Carnival or ‘Defile Kanaval’. The extent of these early February festivities takes the word holiday to a new dimension. Not only will the capital city Port-au-Prince and many other Haitian cities be transformed for several weeks, but there are many Mardi Gras carnivals that take place simultaneously around the world.
Kanaval marks the beginning of one of the holiest times of the year where people everywhere repent for their sins and immerse themselves in prayers for forgiveness.
Yet the point of Carnival is to have a good time, let go of life’s troubles and express oneself through song and dance. There are a few phrases from Carnival that have made their way into mainstream hip hop lyrics such as “put your hands in the air” (mete men nan lè) and “jump up” (sote). Musicians like Rhianna, Wyclef Jean and others from the Haitian diaspora frequently return to Haiti to perform at Carnival.
Like in America or Europe, the dates of many holidays change. Easter week, or Rara, is one such example.
In Maya Deren’s book about Haiti, “Divine Horsemen,” the word ‘Rara’ is attributed to an old American Indian festival, “Bakororo,” which is described as being full of pandemonium. Now pandemonium is not the way American or European cultures would describe holy week! But the variety of activities, from political satire performances, to call and response singing, to the elaborate parades through town give a glimpse into the Haitian way to celebrate Easter week—not to mention the traditional foods of fish, yams beans and rice.
Vibrant and newly made costumes decorated with glitter and colorful knotted scarves parade through a village accompanied by drums, rattles, flutes and brass instruments. Each group in the parade has a leader called a Kolomel. He chooses the route, commands his people with a whistle, and cracks a special whip whenever he feels a need to purify the path from potential evil spirits lurking about. The Majo Jonk in each group is an officer, generally with advanced dancing skills, who performs while twirling a baton.
Flags are naturally a common feature of parades as they symbolize national pride and are raised or carried with great respect. So it is no surprise that Flag Day is a particularly important holiday in Haiti. It is written that the first Haitian flag was created during a dramatic act by Dessalines wherein he took the French blue white and red flag, ripped the white section out, threw it away and then asked his god-daughter Catherine Flon to piece the blue and red sections back together. The blue was to represent Haiti’s black citizens and the red to represent people of color. A smaller holiday to honor the death of Jean Jacques Dessalines is on the 17th of October.
Flag Day is also a day of great reverence for Grandmother Aloumandia (also referenced as Saint Soleil Haiti and Great Saint Anne). Feeding Grandmother Aloumandia is another way Haitians are able to demonstrate respect and honor for their ancestors by making delicious traditional foods and celebrating with their family and community.
In Haiti, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the last Sunday in May. To wish mother happiness a child says Bòn fèt dè mè or Bòn fèt manman and the longstanding tradition is to wear a flower in her honor. If one’s mother is alive, a red flower is worn; if not, one wears a purple or white flower depending upon how long ago she has passed. And instead of breakfast in bed or a sentimental card, children celebrate their mother’s by singing songs and shedding tears in church.
According to blogger Laurie Bean, “People pass out all of the time during Haitian funerals and during Mother’s Day services when their mothers have passed away. They are expressing how they are overwhelmed with grief – a Haitian trait called ‘tonbe crize’ in Creole.”
Haiti’s population is said by some mainstream media to be 80% Catholic and 99% Vodoun underneath (spelled many different ways but pronounced “voodoo”). In the website www.margueritelaurent.com we read, “Vodoun is the spiritual imperative and the way of life of Haitians. It’s psychology, cosmology, phylosophy, art, and a healing way of life.” There are many different Vodoun holidays with one of the most important being All Soul’s Day.
All Soul’s Day
All Soul’s Day, November 2, is celebrated in the cemeteries where people pray with food, peppered alcohol and maybe some coffee, around decorated gravesites of fresh garlands of flowers and candles. They dance all night to pay their respects to loved ones and to Baron Samedi, the god of the dead, as well as his lascivious and sardonic offspring Gede. Gede mixes honoring one’s ancestors with joking and making sexual innuendos. On this day, (according to photographer Daniel Morel’s caption) “Gede loa come out of the cemeteries, possess their horses and come into the hounforts to amuse themselves in the form of souls incarnated or reincarnated. Does this sound a little like Halloween on steroids?
Battle of Vertieres
The only general from the Haitian revolution venerated in the Vodoun religion is Dessaline. Another holiday, celebrated on November 18th, is the Battle of Vertieres or Batay Vètyè. This battle was the final destination where Dessalines defeated the French Army the night of November 17-18, 1803. It took place in what is now called Cap-Haitïen.
Finally, we get to the Christmas holiday. In Haiti, there are a few differences in how this day is celebrated. But first, the similarities:
In the beginning of December, Haitians traditionally buy freshly cut pine trees in the market or cut pine branches to serve as Christmas trees and they decorate them with bright ornaments and include a large nativity scene at the base. Some add colored lights to their trees. People fix up their homes, buy new things and children play with new toys brought by Tonton Nwèl (Santa Claus) on Christmas day.
One thing the Haitian children do differently than American children who hang stockings and put milk and cookies out for Santa, is that they place their nice clean shoes filled with straw either on their porch or under the tree and hope that Santa will remove the straw and replace it with presents in and around the shoes. According to the blog found on www.compassion.com, children of all ages are allowed to drink anisette (rum prepared with anise leaves and sweetened with sugar) on Christmas Eve and stay out late. Most houses stay “open” until three o’clock in the morning with caroling throughout the neighborhood.
The dinner following Christmas Eve mass, often lasting until dawn, is called “reveillon”, which comes from the French word “to wake up.” Waking up to or learning about the culture of another people is a refreshing way to deepen the human connection. These holidays have many similarities and some unique differences to how Americans might experience holiday celebrations. One thing is certain; the spirit of the Haitian Holidays is bright and full.