La Toussaint

Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence – College Intern

Across the United States, millions of children will participate in various Halloween activities next Monday. Since the migration of Irish farmers during the infamous Potato Famine, Halloween has been a cultural staple. Every year, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door hoping for sweet treats. Teenagers and adults often attend corn mazes or haunted houses in lieu of trick-or-treating. In America, Halloween is intertwined with our lives in late October. 

La Toussaint

In France, however, the holiday is barely celebrated! On October 31st, few kids will be participating in “bonbons ou des farces,” the French version of trick-or-treating. Instead, they will be preparing for the following day: La Toussaint. A contraction of tous les saints (all the saints), La Toussaint is a day of commemoration in France. Families gather for reunions and celebrations in honor of family members who have passed. Observed on November 1st, the holiday is nationally recognized and people receive the day off from work and school. School children already have this day off for their “potato holidays,” a long-standing tradition. Historically, the end of October was the potato harvest, and schools would go on break so children could help with the crops. Now, the tradition remains and schools are typically closed from around October 22nd to November 3rd. 

Decorated Graves

The tradition stems back to the 4th century, when it was observed around Easter. However, the November 1st date was officially decided by Pope Gregory IV 800s. The day has changed over time, however. Initially, families simply visited gravestones and memorialized the deceased as a group. According to Catholic tradition, mourning shouldn’t take place until the following day, November 2nd. This day has been labeled la Commémoration des fidèles défunts (All Souls’ Day). 


Autumn Chrysanthemums

At some point, grave decoration became a common tradition for La Toussaint. Now, almost every grave across France will be adorned with chrysanthemums on November 1st. It is believed that the tradition of

chrysanthemums stems from the WWI memorials, where the government encouraged their use for soldier memorials. Additionally, the plants are often in peak flowering season during the late fall, making them perfect for the November holiday. This year, La Toussaint will be celebrated on Wednesday, November 1st! 

The Truth About Vodou

Written by Pranavi Vedula, high school intern

Debunking Vodou: Examining Haitian Religious & Political Tradition

Vodou, alternately spelled voodoo or vaudou, is frequently depicted as a mysterious and strange cult in American popular culture. Hollywood, through movies such as The Princess and the Frog and Indiana Jones, circulates images of pin dolls and malevolent beings. Although Vodou has frequently been targeted by racist ideas, it’s actually a peaceful religion that reflects Haiti’s multicultural history, as well as the country’s fight for independence. 

Haitian Flag

Vodou is a syncretism of Roman Catholicism and the West African Vodun religion, practiced by members of various ethnic groups, including members of the Dahomean, Kongo, and Yoruba groups. During the 1700s, members of these groups were kidnapped and enslaved, and forced to labor in Haitian plantations (or as Haiti was then known, St. Domingue). As the Atlantic Slave Trade intensified, the enslaved peoples’ religion was viewed as a threat. Those who continued to practice their religion faced severe repercussions. Others were forced to convert to Christianity. Enslaved people took part in Christian religious functions while practicing their own religion in secret (in some cases, Vodou spirits were named after Catholic saints, as a way to deceive slave masters).

The Truth about Vodou

Vodou emphasizes the role of spirits in the everyday world. Humans are spirits that live in the visible world, whereas lwa, mystè, anvizib, and zanj live in the invisible world. These spirits live in a land called Ginen. Lwa serve a supreme deity called Bondye—this is the Creole derivation of the French phrase “bon dieu.” Bondye is also referred to as Gran Met-la. Although Vodou is sometimes confused for a polytheistic religion, it is actually monotheistic, because lwa only serve as agents between Bondye and humans. The lwa are also the main focus of Vodou rites. Through devotional acts, such as prayers, songs, and dances, devotees attempt to enter a trance-like state and encourage the lwa to take control of their bodies. The lwa, through their human vessels, provide advice or perform supernatural actions. Devotees ask spirits for good health and to grant solutions to problems or afflictions. Above all, Vodou emphasizes the importance of topics such as justice, philosophy, and medicine.

The Haitian Revolution was the most successful slave revolution in the Americas

Vodou, in the context of the Haitian Revolution, was far more than a religion; it was a political movement committed to liberating enslaved people. Vodou helped unify many different ethnic groups in their goal of gaining independence from French colonists. In one famous meeting at Bois Caïman, political and religious leaders used Vodou as a way to empower enslaved people for their cause. The stereotypes now associated with Vodou —those that frequently portray the religion as evil and violent—came from pushback against Haitian cries for independence. These ideas, which sought to discriminate against the Haitian people, were furthered when the American government later occupied the island.

In short, Vodou embodies principles of liberty and self-expression through its rich history and customs. It continues to be a beautiful cultural component within the larger Francophone world.