Everybody around the world is getting ready to celebrate Christmas in December and Haiti is no exception. Here are six Haitian holiday traditions I would like to share with you:
- In a U.S. government report, it is estimated that 84% of the population in Haiti is Christian. Christmas is a big religious event for most Haitians. Everyone goes to La Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve and continues at home for a celebration dinner called Réveillon.“Réveillon” comes from the French word “réveil” which means “waking” and is a time to celebrate the awakening of Christ with a feast. Réveillon is a huge part of Haitian culture and many Haitians who live abroad. These parties can often be celebrated at home or a restaurant, as families and friends feast, dance, and sing all night long.
- Prior to Christmas day, children place their shoes, neatly cleaned and filled with straw, on the porch under the Christmas tree. Tonton Nwèl (Santa Claus) is expected to remove the straw and put presents in and around the shoes. On the other hand, it is also a common belief that if the children have been naughty, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), Tonton Nwèl’s companion, will leave a whip that their parents will use to beat them.
- Months before Christmas, children begin working on their fanal or Christmas lantern. Fanals are miniature, lantern-like homes that are a part of Haiti’s centuries-old Christmas tradition. They are often made from cardboard and decorated with color paper on the inside. When a lighted candle or small kerosene lamp placed inside illuminates the fragile craft, it creates a stained-glass effect. Some say that this tradition originated in West Africa while many say that it originated as a primitive way of illuminating the way to church. As a Haitian artist and art promoter, Lori Manuel Steed says “Amid the violence and anger, there is a softness.” Referencing to the first sight of fanals as a sign that Christmas is coming.
- While adults are busy with their feast preparation during the Christmas holiday, children often play the game Wosle. It consists of gradually collecting stones from the ground and storing it in the palm of one’s hands- gaining more and more stones. The one who picks up the most at once without the stones slipping out of his palm wins. It is also the only time during the year that children are allowed to have a moderate alcohol drink called anisette. It is made by soaking ‘anise’ leaves in rum and then sweetened with sugar or simple syrup.
- Although more than 80% of Haitians profess to be Christians, more than 90% also profess to practice some form of Vodou. Vodou is an extremely open and fluid religion. The rituals have combined religious practices from a wide variety of African traditions which includes Christianity. This is because Catholicism was widely practiced in Kongo in the sixteenth century. Vodou believers see Christmas as a magical time- when the air is filled with spiritual heat as the Christ child is born into the world. They often prepare themselves mentally and physically with ‘Christmas baths’ around Christmas to New Year Eve for the coming New Year. The Christmas Baths are cleansing in nature, and they are believed to remove all negativity, including doubt, limitation, or aggression, leaving behind a renewed person full of potential.
- Not only is Christmas important in Haiti as it signifies the incoming new year, this time is also quite important due to the Independence celebrations for Haiti as a nation. In the morning, wreaths and flowers are placed in front of the National Palace and at the foot of the Statute of the Maroon man (Le Negre Marron, Neg Mawon) which is a statue of a freed slave, a symbol of freedom for Haiti’s black people. In Port-au-Prince, marches are organized in celebration of the country’s independence from colonial rule. Haitian Independence Day celebration would be incomplete without a homemade feast, notably the Haitian Soup joumou (mentioned in our November newsletter). This soup used to be forbidden for Haitians by the French and after Haiti proclaimed its liberty, the soup was consumed as a sign of Haitian control. In recognition of Independence Day, January 2, Jour des Aieux which is ancestor’s day is also celebrated as a public holiday.
Written by Jennifer ShuPing Chen
- Haiti 2018 International Religious Freedom Report. (2018). United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Retrieved on December 1, 2021: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/HAITI-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
- Christmas in Haiti. (2020). World Wide Village. Retrieved on December 1, 2021: https://worldwidevillage.org/christmas-in-haiti/
- Christmas in Haiti. (2014). Caribbean Green Living. Retrieved on December 1, 2021: https://www.caribbeangreenliving.com/christmas-in-haiti/
- Haiti. (2015). Hayes, A., Nevins, D. United States: Cavendish Square Publishing LLC. Retrieved on December 1, 2021: https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Haiti/pItmDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
- Haiti’s fanal lights are a sign of the holidays. (2011). The Miami Herald. Retrieved on December 1, 2021: https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24604957.html
- Christmas in Haiti. (2020). Charita Pro Haiti. Retrieved on December 2, 2021: https://haiti.cz/en/2020/12/18/christmas-in-haiti/
- Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. (2012). Laurent Dubois. Retrieved on December 2, 2021: https://www.amazon.com/Haiti-Aftershocks-History-Laurent-Duboi ebook/dp/B005CRY8WC/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=haiti&qid=1638420410&s=digital-text&sr=1-1
- End of Year Cleansing: The Christmas and New Year Baths. Kiwi Mojo. Retrieved on December 2, 2021: https://kiwimojo.com/home/haitian-vodou/articles-and-extras/end-of-year-cleansing-the-christmas-and-new-year-baths/