Festivals of Haiti

Posted by Crooked Compass

Located in the heart of the Caribbean is Haiti, a small island nation that once suffered under French colonialism before becoming the first ever republic to be led by people of African descent, following the Haitian Revolution in 1804. During the period of French colonialism, slavery was a common practice and Haiti was producing nearly 60% of all coffee in the world, making this small island nation the world's largest producer of coffee at the time. More recently, the country suffered another great blow when it was decimated by an disastrous earthquake in 2010 that claimed the lives of over 200,000 Haitians and displaced 1.5 million more.

Whilst the history of this country may be dark, it has not stopped the culture of the Haitian people to develop into one that is full of celebrations, song, dance and costumes, often placing the importance of family and ancestry above all else. The people of Haiti know how to celebrate an occasion like no other country in the world, so lets take a deeper look into the festivals of this Caribbean wonderland.

Costumes of Carnival
The many costumes of Carnival. Photo Credit: Grete Howard

Fet Gede (Festival of the Ancestors)

The Vodou festival of Fet Gede, also known as the Festival of the Ancestors, is the Vodou  religion equivalent to the Mexican Day of the Dead and Mardi Gras combined. The people of Haiti converge to the capital to dress up, take to the streets and dance in a procession towards the main cemetery to pay tribute to the Gede (spirits of the Vodou  religion). Rituals and festivities take place throughout the month of November; however the biggest celebrations are at the start of the month on All Saints & All Soul's Day (1st & 2nd of November, respectively). As the crowd makes their way through the city towards the graveyard, they carry photographs or images of their ancestors to honour them, or bring special offerings such as their favourite alcohol or coffee.

Celebrations at Fet Gede.
Celebrations at Fet Gede. Photo Credit: Sean Roubens Jen Sacra

Carnival in Haiti

The festival of Carnival, is similar to Carnival in other Caribbean nations or the annual celebration held in Rio De Janeiro, however with a Haitian twist. The streets are filled with imaginative costumes that are often politically motivated or are satirist of current events, whilst the sound of Rara can be heard across the city. Parades of colourful floats take over the streets as they blast music out to the erratic dancing of the crowd, whilst rum-fueled parties often end in the early hours of the morning. This festival is held over several weeks leading up to lent, with celebrations kicking off at the start of February. The biggest Carnival celebration is held in the capital, Port-au-Prince, whilst smaller celebrations take place in towns all across the country.

The colourful costumes of Carnival. Photo Credit: Steve Murphy
Colourful costumes at Carnival. Photo Credit: Grete Howard

Rara Festival 

The Rara Festival is a Haitian music festival featuring the traditional Haitian style & Afro-Caribbean music, commonly known as Rara, held every year during lent. Whilst the festival is aligned with the Catholic calendar, its roots are a clear combination of both Catholicism and the Vodou religion. The Rara Festival takes place in villages and towns all across Haiti, before the celebrations make their way towards the major cities. The festival is full of group singing and dancing, using percussion instruments and homemade bamboo style trumpets called a Vaksen. As the celebrations culminate in the cities, bands of up to 1000 people gather in the streets to perform whilst thousands more dance to the sounds of the Rara. This festival is all about finding strength and unifying the Haitian people.

A man playing the Vaksen at a Rara Festival.
A man playing the Vaksen at a Rara Festival.

Dessalines Day

Another important date in the Haitian calendar is Dessalines Day, a public holiday for the Haitian people to remember the death of their founding father, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who fought for and won Haiti's independence in 1804. Dessalines was born into slavery and worked on a plantation during the earlier stages of his life, before joining the slave revolt in 1791 that would eventually lead to the revolution. Dessalines played a pivotal role as a military general in leading the Haitian people to their independence in 1804, becoming the first black republic in the world and one of the first country's in the world to abolish slavery completely.  Today in Haiti, people commemorate the life of Dessalines and the independence of Haiti by taking to the streets for parades, often dressing up in his honour. Dessalines Day occurs on October 17th annually and is celebrated in major towns across Haiti, including Port-au-Prince.

A parade at Dessalines Day.
A parade at Dessalines Day.

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