Religion, Vodou

Happy Vodou Christmas

“What do you want for Christmas?” she asked me.

“I don’t—”

I stopped. She raised an eyebrow.

“What?” she asked.

I was going to say I don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s an automatic response. But to my surprise I realized…

“Oh crap. I’m Vodou now. I do celebrate Christmas.”

From my Vodou ceremony Saturday night.

From my Vodou ceremony Saturday night. Photo by Drew Jacob.

Other People’s Holidays

I wrote last week about why the Bible isn’t part of my spiritual quest. That was mostly a mix of personal preference and philosophic reasons. Christmas hits a little closer to home.

If you’re not Christian, chances are high that Christmas sucks—or at least aspects of it do. There are a few reasons:

  • Christmas is everywhere.
  • Christmas is everywhere, and your holiday is nowhere. There’s no faster way to make someone feel like an outsider.
  • People actually get mad at you for not saying “Merry Christmas.” This is a small percentage of people, but when it happens it will ruin your whole day.
  • Unless you’re Jewish, most people don’t even know what your holiday is. You’re in that “and everything else” category. In many cases, people you love won’t remember its name even if you tell them.
  • Maybe no one will wish you a happy holiday till your holiday is over. (When you wish your Jewish friends Happy Hanukkah at the holiday party, you should know that it’s been finished for two+ weeks this year.)
  • Well-intentioned Christians remind you that “you can celebrate Christmas anyway.” I’m sure they all celebrate Diwali.
  • You may be compared to Scrooge.

I recognize that many non-Christians choose to participate in Christmas as a cultural holiday or for family’s sake, and that’s a fine choice. It’s one I’m personally uncomfortable with, and I’ve abstained from Christmas for a good decade now.

But my Vodou changes that. Vodou is quite definitely not Christian, but uses a lot of Christian elements as frosting. Saint candles, crucifices, some Catholic prayers—things that were absorbed during Slavery and are now tradition.

The Christmas Eve Bonfires at Lutcher.

The Christmas Eve Bonfires at Lutcher. Photo by Drew Jacob.

Bathing in Fire

Last Christmas Eve I arrived at the Temple at a run, almost late for the ceremony. I knew not many people would be there—Xmas and all—but it was a special occasion. I wore the usual white, but with a red head scarf. We were serving the Petwo, fiery and aggressive spirits whose ceremonies include live fireworks.

The Hounfo was cold, the cement floor chilled through by damp New Orleans air. One by one we sang in the Petwo lwa and their veves took shape in cornmeal on the floor.

Then the cauldron came out.

Our priests mixed together a cocktail of ingredients including rum and Florida Water. In went a spark and whoosh came the giant dancing flames.

And we bathed in them.

Reaching into the cauldron I dipped my hands into liquid fire, trickles of light running down my arms and flames leaping off of me. It felt pleasantly warm over my skin. To some people present it was old hat; for me it was a moment of awe.

After the ceremony it was late, but we packed into several cars and drove an hour to Lutcher, Louisiana for a centuries-old tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee.

It was one of the few times my House family did something together outside the temple, one of the most special nights of my time in New Orleans. I didn’t even think of it as Christmas, really.

But now I’ve been initiated and Vodou is one of my religions. I practice alone here in Texas, and it’s up to me to decide which elements of Christmas to borrow and absorb—just as our House has borrowed the Lutcher bonfires.

My own fire bath. Photo by Drew Jacob.

My own fire bath. Photo by Drew Jacob.

I’m not yet sure how I’ll celebrate Christmas this year. I do know it’ll be me, alone; no family, no girlfriend visiting, not even my roommate. I have a fantasy of getting a Nativity scene and replacing all the figurines with skeletons to make a Vodou Manger. What do you think?

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