Fet Gede, also known as the Festival of the Dead, is a key celebration in Haitian culture. It’s a national holiday centered around Voodoo culture. Haitians across the country join each other in song and dance to celebrate lwa or spirits of Voodoo.
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Multiple cultures around the world unite in death to honor spirits in November. In this guide, we’ll focus on Fet Gede—its history, traditions, and how you can celebrate.
What’s Fet Gede?
Fet Gede (also knows as Fèt Gede or Fète Gede) is like its Haitian celebrators: joyful, resilient, and unordinary. This celebration offers time not only to celebrate death but to face it. Let’s take at the origin of Fet Gede and why it’s important.
Fet Gede isn’t just a celebration of spirits; it’s also an ode to Haiti’s endurance. Fet Gede originates from the long-standing history of slavery in Haiti.
Before 1804, Haitians were enslaved under French rule. Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was known back then, was a violent place for slaves. They lived in dirty conditions and were often mistreated.
Voodoo was an outlet for slaves to stay emotionally healthy and remember their homeland. The practice of Voodoo stems from West Africa and started as far as 6,000 years ago. It‘s an ancient religion that centers around ancestral beliefs. Slaves often masked Voodoo rituals under the disguise of Catholic traditions.
In fact, Haitians believe Voodoo is the reason for their freedom. It served as an inspiration for slaves to rebel against the French. In a now-famous ceremony called Bois Caïman or Alligator Woods, thousands of slaves came together in a Voodoo ritual against the French.
During the ceremony, slave leaders were possessed by the lwa spirits. Everyone danced, sang, and prayed that the white men would be defeated. Ultimately the ceremony was successful, as
Haiti is one of the few colonies that won its independence thanks to its slave rebellion.
Voodoo left a significant impression on the Haitian culture. It’s not a surprise that Fet Gede continues to be the most important religious holiday on the national calendar. It brings the community together to bring the dead alive again.
As mentioned before, all followers of Voodoo in Haiti celebrate Fet Gede. In Voodoo, it is considered to be an honor to communicate with spirits. The spirits follow and guide followers throughout life.
The significance of spirits is especially crucial for Haitian funerals, and like funerals, Voodoo priests and priestess perform special rituals to summon the spirits.
During Fet Gede, Houngan (priests) or Manbo (priestesses) perform rituals as well. Spirits “mount” or possess followers. There are hundreds of spirits or lwa in Voodoo.
However, Fet Gede is a celebration of the Guédé (Ghede or Gede) family—spirits of the dead.
Haitians celebrate the Gede spirits during the entire month of November. Many cultures consider the early days of November to be the most sacred. Then, the spirits of loved ones can return earthside and advise their family and friends. All Saints’ Day is a Catholic celebration in November to remember the dead, just like Fet Gede.
Fet Gede falls on the same day each year, as people take to the streets on November 2nd to connect with the dead.
Haitians usually celebrate the dead in temples, churches, cemeteries, and homes. Rituals happen on cemetery streets, at gravesites, or in temples. Usually, there is a procession to the cemetery followed by a temple ceremony.
The Get Fede celebration is especially intense at the Grand Cimetière (Grand Cemetary) in Port-au-Prince. This cemetery in Haiti’s capital city is filled with museums and tombs. Different ‘neighborhoods’ in the cemetery focus on various lwa spirits.
Recently, countries like the U.S. are embracing Fet Gede. In states with large numbers of Haitian immigrants like in New York, celebrations happen in city parks. These are milder than traditional gatherings, and may also offer education for those that might not be familiar with Voodoo culture.
How to Celebrate Fet Gede: Offerings and Traditions
Although there are hundreds of lwa, contact with the Gede family is the goal of the celebration. During Fet Gede, Voodoo practitioners offer special food and drink, perform rituals, and prepare altars.
Worshippers also remember their family members by leaving offerings at their graves. These special traditions attract the dead to the living.
If you’re attending a Fet Gede celebration for the first time or want to watch, you may want to be familiar with how others may behave.
Fet Gede is an over the top gathering. The gede spirit family acts outside of society’s accepted boundaries and are known for their extreme antics.
The gedes are gluttons that overindulge in alcohol, food, and sexuality without shame. Those who are possessed by them will have good fortune and health. Often you’ll find participants using derogatory language and dancing wildly, especially if they’re possessed.
Excessive behavior like crying, moaning, drinking, and screaming will attract the gedes to the celebration. In this way, Fet Gede brings joy to the community.
Order of events
The rituals that participants choose may be different, but the chronology of the celebration is usually the same.
Before participants begin the celebration, they have to prepare offerings to the gede spirits, which are described below. Participants may choose to celebrate in a church or cemetery, however, many people make the pilgrimage to the capital Port-au-Prince to celebrate there.
There is usually a procession comprised of thousands of people making their way to the cemetery. They have to ask the gede spirits for permission before entering, as it’s bad luck to enter if you feel unwelcome or see signs of misfortune.
The first stop and focal point of the celebration is Papa Gede’s grave. He’s known as the Master of Death. Papa Gede is a psychopomp (guide into the afterlife). He offers valuable advice, never lets souls die before their time, and is the life of the party.
Next, you can honor Mama Gede (Papa Gede’s wife) at her tomb. She is the queen of death and the first woman to have died. After visiting both Papa and Mama Gede, participants sing songs to greet the rest of the gede spirits before mourning their relatives.
Finally, you can move on to celebrate in the streets or the main temple. There’s no shortage of people drinking and dancing while mingling with the dead.
To make the gede spirits happy, especially Papa Gede, Voodoo participants make elaborate offerings of rum, tobacco, and bones to “feed” the spirits. If there are plentiful offerings, then the gede will join the celebration.
Special altars (areas with offerings) are necessary and may be devoted to a particular spirit or all of them. They line the streets at the Grand Cemetery in Port-au-Prince. Papa Gede’s shrine is especially important. He is not only the master of death but also the master of healing. His favorite offerings are tobacco, coffee, and rum.
Also, worshippers prepare pinam—a special altar wine for the gede to drink. Once the spirits leave the underworld, they’re heated up with this mixture of hot peppers. Voodoo worshippers possessed by the gede may drink the wine to prove they are truly possessed.
Animal sacrifice is another important practice. Worshippers sacrifice animals, including goats, chicken, and cows. The animals’ throats are slit and their blood is drained to satisfy the gede. The possessed may drink the blood, as it is considered a special privilege and good fortune to do so.
Music and dance
Both music and dancing are important expressions of devotion in Voodoo. For the gede to fully possess worshipers, the houn'torguiers or Voodoo drummers play intense music. The fast-paced music and dancing allow the worshipper to lose control of their body. Participants may scream and flail or even faint.
The possessed person can bless the people around him or her. They can connect with the dead, share their stories, or even reveal how they died. Without Voodoo rhythmic dance and beats, the ritual is impossible.
There is a specific celebratory dress code you’ll want to consider when attending Fet Gede. The gede family funeral colors are black, purple, and white, and Voodoo worshippers wear these colors to symbolize their dedication to the spirits.
Women can wear long dresses while the men wear casual t-shirts and pants. Possessed worshippers imitate the clothing of specific gedes. Men possessed by Papa Gede wear top hats and eye patches. Papa Gede covers one eye to show that he can see both on the mortal plane and into the afterlife. Worshippers also paint their faces white.
Death in Life
Fet Gede isn’t the only celebration of ancestors around the world. In Mexican culture, the Day of the Dead is another get-together to remember the dead. Worshippers share stories, give offerings, and build altars. In the U.S., Halloween falls on October 31, and is a modern way for all people to take part in the death culture.
Cultures name these celebrations differently, but the concept is the same. We all want to stay connected in life and in death. How would you want to stay connected? Start end of life planning to take control of your death story.
- Smith-Marie, Katherine. “Dialoguing with the Urban Dead in Haiti.” Southern Quarterly. www.academia.edu/40493378/Dialoging_with_the_Urban_Dead_in_Haiti
- “Haitian Revolution Begins.” Brown University. www.library.brown.edu/haitihistory/5.html
- “What Is The Day Of The Dead/Fet Gede Celebration?” New Orleans Healing Center. www.neworleanshealingcenter.org/what-is-the-day-of-the-dead-fet-gede-celebration/