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In honoring the dead, Haiti's Festival of the Ancestors becomes a celebration of life

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Fet Gede, Haiti's Festival of the Ancestors, was celebrated at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York City. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - As the days get darker and the weather colder, there exists a widespread belief that the boundary between the living and the dead starts to thin, allowing spirits to more easily enter into our world. In making the most of this increased potential for connection, many cultures hold large celebrations to honor their ancestors in the early days of November. It’s a time not only to remember the dead but to revel alongside the spirits of all those who have come before us.

While sharing a common overarching theme, the festivals around the world take on different forms in accordance with any given culture’s specific customs, values, and religion. In Haiti, their veneration of the dead, known as Fet Gede, is a two-day event with a foundation in Vodou traditions.

Originating in what is now Benin, the spiritual system of Vodou made its way to Haiti in the 1700s.

Under French rule in the colony of Saint-Domingue, hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced into slavery and subjected to unimaginable cruelty. Masters maintained control of the slaves through acts of physical violence and torture. This inhumane treatment, along with diseases like yellow fever, led to high mortality rates. Viewing the slaves as expendable, the French did not attempt to improve working conditions and instead increased their level of importation.

But in the face of this brutality, Vodou flourished.

In an attempt to suppress African religions, a decree called the Code Noir required enslaved Africans to be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Despite these efforts, many slaves refused to abandon their beliefs. To maintain secrecy and avoid punishment, they began to use Catholicism as a mask to disguise the true intentions of their worship. A prayer that seemed to address a Catholic saint, for example, would instead be directed to a corresponding Vodou spirit.

By enabling the slaves to retain a sense of identity and human dignity, the practice of Vodou became a point of resistance against the rulers. It also served as a unifying force for the varying African tribes. In 1791, a Vodou ceremony at Bois Ca├»man served as the catalyst for the Haitian Revolution, a successful uprising of the slaves against the French colonial rule. Given the important role that Vodou played in the country’s history, it remains a significant part of Haitian culture to this day.

In Haitian Vodou, the Supreme God, Bondye, is considered to be unknowable and unreachable, so devotees instead direct their worship and offerings to the Iwa, a group of spirits created by Bondye to support the needs of the living. While maintaining a strong relationship with the Iwa can be demanding, it’s also a crucial aspect of their belief system. In dutifully serving the spirits, practitioners are asking for their continued blessings and protection in return.

The Gede are a family of spirits overseen by Baron Samedi, the master of the dead and the spirit responsible for transporting the newly deceased into the afterlife. The entire Gede family is known for their rowdy behavior, and as such, the rituals that honor the family during Fet Gede are similarly boisterous, involving drinking, drumming, and dancing.

The Fet Gede celebration involves a spiritual procession to the cemetery, where offerings of food and drink are presented to the ancestors. During the ceremony, the Iwa make their attendance known by “mounting,” or possessing, participants. Upon mounting, the Iwa gains a physical presence through that person and may sing, dance, speak, or provide healing.

Unlike the more familiar Mexican Day of the Dead, Fet Gede is relatively unknown outside of Haiti. This year, a Haitian group called Konfederasyon Nasyonal Vodouyizan Ayisyen, or KNVA, partnered with a New York City public park to share Fet Gede with a broader audience.

Located in Queens, Socrates Sculpture Park is a community-focused outdoor museum and park that aims to support the production of public art. The park has a history of providing educational programming related to the multitude of cultures that can be found in the surrounding areas.

“We find that it’s incredibly important to connect with the vibrant, culturally-diverse communities that are present in Queens and New York City,” explained Sara Morgan, the park’s Communications and Marketing Manager.

Through their partnership with KNVA, the park’s annual Harvest Festival offered New Yorkers the unique experience of participating in a Fet Gede celebration. Upon arriving at the park, attendees could learn about the traditionally-decorated altar, receive a card reading, and taste delectable Haitian dishes like accra fritters and the pumpkin-based Soup Joumou. The ceremony then kicked off with a procession to the altar and an offering of gifts to the ancestors; everyone present was invited to join in.

Following the procession, members of KNVA, dressed in elaborate costumes, performed a series of Haitian dances to lively drum beats. One of the dances drew inspiration from folklore, representing a character named Anansi who takes the shape of a spider. Another dance centered around Maman Brigitte, the wife of Baron Samedi and the protector of graves. Once the performances concluded, all present were invited to partake in the dancing.

The joyous nature of the event was unmistakable throughout the entirety of the afternoon. It served as a reminder that death doesn’t always have to be treated in such a somber or frightening way. In reconnecting with the past, a brighter future might be found.