smiling little girl in Haiti with arms raised

How Sponsored Children and Families Celebrate Haitian Carnival

Holt’s staff in Haiti share about the unique traditions and history of Carnival, and how sponsors make it possible for children to celebrate this significant cultural event.

In late February and early March, children and families in Haiti celebrated Carnival, or “Kanaval” as they say in Haitian Creole. As in other countries that celebrate this holiday — including Mardi Gras in the U.S. — Carnival in Haiti is a time of popular rejoicing. Carnival usually begins after Christmas and New Year festivities until the beginning of the Catholic Lenten season, a period of fasting and penance that precedes Easter. The Carnival season ends on the Roman Catholic holiday of Ash Wednesday following celebrations on ’’the Three Fat Days’’ — Fat Sunday, Fat Monday and Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.

As our staff in Haiti share, Haitian Carnival traditions come from a mixture of influences — including European, African and indigenous Amerindian celebrations. “That is the reason you will find a little bit of all of these reminiscences in the costumes and masks exhibited in the Haitian Carnival,” explains Monsieur Faroul, Holt’s child protection officer in Haiti. “Overall, it is a period for great joy where all Haitian people, no matter their social and economic classes, mingle together to enjoy themselves as one people, one culture and one nation.”

In European tradition, Carnival is a time to celebrate the pleasures of life before a time of penance and self-restraint. In Haiti, it is also a form of social therapy. As Monsieur Faroul explains, “Carnival is a ‘période of défoulement’ — a  period of total release of all desires and also frustrations repressed during the year.” For the many Haitians who live in poverty, Carnival provides an outlet to express frustrations about their living conditions and lack of opportunity. In a country that exists under authoritarian rule, Carnival also provides a rare period of protected speech and public freedom — “because it’s only during these three ‘fat days’ that social and political criticism would not be repressed,” says Monsieur Faroul.    

Overall, it is a period for great joy where all Haitian people, no matter their social and economic classes, mingle together to enjoy themselves as one people, one culture and one nation.

Monsieur Faroul, Holt’s child protection officer in Haiti

During Haitian Carnival, families often reunite to celebrate together. Even expatriated relatives come back home to sing, dance and eat together. Many children wear costumes, masks and face paintings, and most schools hold special activities to celebrate what is called the “Students’ Carnival.” At school, students participate in parades and music, and dress in special Haitian cultural costumes and masks they made the week before. 

“This year, our partner schools and crèches took the opportunity to set the mood in their respective spaces and allow the little ones and young people to let off steam a little, just for a morning, despite the state of stress caused in children by the security situation in the country,” says Madam Augustin, a member of Holt’s team in Haiti.

Children at a Holt sponsor-supported school in Haiti dance in celebration of Carnival.

This past year, Haitians faced greater economic, health and safety struggles as they coped with the effects of COVID-19, a massive 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August, and the shocking assassination of their president in July 2021 — resulting in an ongoing political and economic crisis as well as heightened gang violence across the country. While security and economic issues led the government to cancel this year’s National Carnival celebration in Port-au-Prince, schools and smaller communities continued with planned festivities.

“Despite the situation of insecurity prevailing in the country this year, the school children’s/students’ carnival in our nurseries and partner schools was grandiose, rich in color and entertainment — and also tasty because a festive snack was offered to the children to allow them to fully live this day,” says Madam Augustin.

No matter the struggles they face, Haitians rejoice every year during Carnival.

Women in colorful dresses and masks during Carnival in Haiti

“Culturally, ‘the Haitian is a people who suffers and who sings’ to repeat the renowned Haitian ethnologist Jean Price Mars,” says Monsieur Faroul. “Singing, dancing, rejoicing is part of the Haitian lifestyle, in spite of his misery and no matter the difficulties he has to face in his life.”

Through the generous support of sponsors and donors, children in Holt’s Haiti programs have much greater stability in their lives and all of their most basic and urgent needs met. Every year, sponsors and donors also help fund special celebrations for children at Holt partner schools and crèches. Thank you for helping to make Carnival celebrations possible for orphaned and vulnerable children in Haiti!

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