Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Haiti: Interfaith Syncretism, Symbiosis

Today, in the “On Religion” column in the New York Times,  Samuel G. Freedman finally points out that Haitian Vodou is a legitimate, important and much-misunderstood religion. And yet, Freedman’s copy editors persist in using the spelling “voodoo,” not only refusing to recognize it with the capitalization they give to any other world religion (Buddhism, Hinduism), but maintaining the Americanized spelling associated with Hollywood horror movies, rather than one of the more phonetically-accurate spellings (Vodou, or Vodun)  more true to the French-inflected pronunciation in Haitian Creole.

But returning, as I always do, to the subject of celebrating two religions: Freedman explains that “between 50 and 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” He does not clarify that this wide range reflects a  shift in recent decades. Haiti was once nearly 100 percent Catholic, with the majority also practicing Vodou. But Protestant churches have made inroads in Haiti (and throughout the Catholic world), and Protestant clergy are less willing to tolerate the involvement of their adherents with Vodou. When I lived in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s, I saw the same shift occurring: “believers” (fundamentalist Protestants) did not participate in the Catholic and African celebration of  Carnaval (and did not drink, dance, or wear pants if they were women). This fact had a felicitous personal consequence for me when we lived in northeastern Brazil: our Protestant babysitter was available and willing to work for us while my husband and I went out and “played” throughout Carnaval.

American news reports on Haiti have almost always focused on misery, and Americans may not realize that in Haiti, Catholics celebrate  Carnival in the days before Lent,  just as Catholics in Brazil, New Orleans and Europe do. In Europe, Carnival evolved when the Catholic church absorbed Ancient Roman festivals, and those European pre-Christian elements followed colonists to the Americas, mixing with African and indigenous American rituals to create New World Carnivals.

In my recent essay on celebrating both Catholicism and Vodou, I referred to the intertwining of the African and Catholic pantheon of saints and spirits as “syncretism.” Freedman avoids using this word, perhaps because the Catholic church discourages syncretism, with its implication of  two religions in dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, the Catholic church has envisioned and encouraged a dance between Catholicism and local cultures, a process referred to as “inculturation,” in order to deliver Catholic teachings in diverse settings. Inculturation signals respect for cultural differences but also for the boundaries between them. Syncretism threatens those boundaries.

Freedman evades the dangerous implications of the word “syncretism” by referring instead to a “Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities.” The word “conflates” implies that the superimposition, the equation of saints and African spirits is mistaken, or negative. Symbiosis, again, implies that two entities remain separate. But I suspect that for many Haitians, Catholicism and Vodou coexist in a marriage so intimate that they are “as one.” Freedman interviewed Vodou priest and religion professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who compared Haitians to those Japanese who perform both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and “see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.”

Meanwhile, those of us practicing both Christian and Jewish rituals await recognition of our much-misunderstood pathway. Judaism and Christianity have different cultures and rituals, worth highlighting, specifying, preserving. But at the same time, I do not fear allowing the two religions to coexist in my community, my family, my brain and body: personally, after a lifetime of contemplating this conundrum, I see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.

Haitian Spirits

My mother-in-law has a sequined Vodou flag hanging above her fireplace in Connecticut. When people inquire, she explains that it depicts the ship Imamou transporting the Haitian dead to the land of the spirits. Visitors tend to go quiet as she delves into the belief system of Vodou, the national religion of Haiti.

This week, Imamou groans through the waves, tragically overloaded with tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of passengers–Haitian earthquake victims. As the horrific news and images swirl around us, I wait to hear whether my husband’s skills as a Creole-speaker and relief worker will mean he gets on a plane. I know he wants to go: of all the countries he has worked in around the world, Haiti is his first love, never forgotten.

In 1983, I went to visit him while he was working in a home for street boys in Petionville. In preparation, I read Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a seminal work on Vodou written by a filmmaker in the 1950s. Then I read Robert Farris Thompson’s influential Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, a book describing how West and Central Africans brought their religions to the New World and preserved them by interweaving them with Catholicism in places including Haiti, New Orleans, and Brazil.
I arrived in Haiti during the week when the Christian holidays of All Souls, All Saints and the Day of the Dead converge with the most important Vodou celebrations. In the night, we heard drumming, and got out of bed to walk until we saw a circle of dancing Haitians dressed in white. An eager journalist, I wanted to approach the circle. My husband, with healthy respect for the culture in which he was living, convinced me that we should return to bed, and not intrude.

Somehow, our lives have continued to circle the Atlantic in a mysterious pattern echoing the slave trade. We lived for three years in West Africa, including trips to Benin, Togo and the Yoruba centers that so informed the religion of Africans in the Americas. Later, we found ourselves living in northeastern Brazil, where African religions absorbed Catholic saints and symbols to become Candomble.

So why write about all this on my interfaith blog? A lot of folks (Pat Robertson, David Brooks) are making ignorant comments this week about “voodoo” (a Hollywood construct) and Haiti. For those who want a deeper understanding, I recommend the two books above–both are authoritative, deep yet lively. Joseph Campbell wrote the introduction to Deren’s book.

In my own interfaith journey, Haiti provided the first thrilling encounter with complex, compelling and obviously syncretic religious practice. Later, I came to see all religions as syncretic: evolving together, influencing each other, intertwining and swapping information like strands of DNA. In Haiti and Brazil and Africa, adhering to more than one religious worldview simultaneously is often central, not marginal. In my quest for interfaith acceptance, I take inspiration from my time in these rich and deeply spiritual cultures.

Sorting through our photos from Haiti, trying to choose one for this post, I found many images of the street boys who taught my husband Creole. They should be men now in their prime, and it is very hard to think about their fates this week. As others have pointed out, death is always close in Haiti, and the dead remain an intimate part of the family. After the spirit Agwe ferries Imamou through the waters, their souls are home again in Ginen (Guinea), the land of the ancestors. The idea provides comfort, much like the consoling Judeo-Christian idea of heaven as green pasture. So I chose a photo of a bit of green in Haiti’s mountains, remnants of farmland and trees, in an attempt to envision a peaceful place for all of these souls, and a remnant of hope for a future of ecological and agricultural renewal in Haiti.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.