This month I wanted to write about what Christmastime is like in Haiti. But it’s been a long time since I’ve lived there and my childhood memories are pretty fuzzy. So I sat down with my good friend Réyina Senatus, who is from Port-au-Prince and goes back each year for the holidays, to talk about what celebrating Christmas was like for her when she was growing up.
First of all, where in the city did you live?
We lived in Delmas 19 until I was five, then moved to Delmas 31. [Delmas is a densely populated area with a lot of businesses as well as residences.]
When did “Christmastime” officially begin for your family?
Around mid-December. My dad would decorate the outside of our house with lights and then we would all help decorate inside the house.
Did you have a favorite Christmas tradition?
Not really a tradition, but the way we celebrated was always the same. The night of Christmas Eve, a lot of people would host Réveillon parties at their houses, with music and food and firecrackers. Everyone would just go from party to party until around 2am. Then we went home to bed. We never got much sleep because my sister and I would still wake up early the next morning to open our presents!
Was Santa Claus a thing?
Yes, of course! When we got back late from Réveillon there would be no presents under the tree, but in the morning they would be there. I was obsessed with Pokemon, so Santa just knew to get me a bunch of Pokemon stuff, I never really had to ask!
What’s the most memorable gift you received?
When I was seven or eight, my godfather gave me this Barbie. I remember it had really cool shoes and I loved it. Then my five-year-old cousin wanted to play with it, so I let her. But she wouldn’t give it back! I was really upset, so I told my mom. And my mom said I should just let her have it for the day. And of course the next day when I asked for it back she wouldn’t give it to me. [shakes head] Never got it back.
Were there any special foods you would eat?
I guess Christmas was the only time of the year when we’d regularly have desserts around the house. We would go to this bakery called Marie Béliard and get pastries. My absolute favorite was Marquise au Chocolat. Oooh, I have to remember to get some when I’m there! [laughs]
Did you have a favorite Christmas song?
Well, in 4th or 5th grade we learned “O Holy Night” for English class. I was pretty obsessed with it for a while. I would go around singing it everywhere and at the “fall on your knees” part I would fall down on my knees!
Was there much of a religious aspect to Christmas?
Somewhat. My family usually didn’t go to church on Christmas, but a lot of my friends did. And I went to Catholic school, so the religious part of Christmas was really emphasized there.
If you could point to the main difference between the way Christmas is celebrated in the U.S. versus in Haiti, what would that be?
Hmm. I think in the U.S. Christmas is more family-centered and focused on traditions, like baking together. Whereas in Haiti, Christmas is more like a time to party with everyone you know, friends and family. And of course since it doesn’t get super cold in Haiti, Christmas isn’t associated with snow or sledding or anything like that.
I love Christmastime in Port-au-Prince because there’s a completely different feel to the city. It’s the only time of the year when the political tension seems to go away and everyone feels safe being out on the streets after midnight. And all the buildings are decorated and everything looks beautiful.
Written by Megan Pearson on December 21, 2017