Haitian fanal, Haiti christmas, haiti noel lanterns
Haitian fanal via Justin Briginshaw flicrk
View of a fanal, a small paper house, lighted from within. Photo via Flickr Justin Briginshaw

Fanals to light the way 

“On Christmas Eve, the cheerful voices outside in the dark told us it was time. We joined the late-night gathering that followed the person in our village, who, every year, made fanaland carried one proudly toward Midnight Mass. 

“The candles inside that little house, fashioned from paper, illuminated the colored tissue paper, casting jewel-like colors on the dirt road. 

“Our family joined neighbors to climb the steps of the church, enter through the huge front doors and bow our heads…”

As recounted by many who grew up in Haiti, magical moments like these make the holidays a precious, albeit nostalgic, time. Each new generation modifies some traditions to better reflect our changing society. Others are in danger of being forgotten altogether….

“This tradition of fanal is gone,” said Roland Toussaint, a school teacher in Jacmel, the seaside city about 60 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. “There used to be large competitions, and the person who had the best fanal got an award.”

“I lost all my tools during the August earthquake and don’t have the means to buy more,” said Rose Idalina Elysée, who ran a fanal workshop in the Les Cayes area, about 120 miles southwest from Jacmel. “Haitians are not interested in buying fanal anymore — this tradition is dead.” 

Her cousin Briny Elysée of Duchity, 20 miles from Les Cayes, feels differently.

“I made fanal 33 years ago. I was 11,” he said, describing the steps. “I still have all the processes in my mind. I don’t forget.”

Elysée laid out the general steps, which are simplified in these directions for how to make a fanal.  

Here come the kites 

These days, kites seem to be an emerging substitute for fanal in the crafting tradition.  

Jocelin Joseph, 25, purchased supplies to make them at the Children’s Club of Seguin, a village  65 miles west of Port-au-Prince, continuing the custom he began six years ago. 

“The kids think it’s fun,” Joseph said. “They keep telling me how they can’t wait to do it again.”

Garlyn Desir, who grew up in La Croix, a tiny village 25 miles from Jacmel, and sometimes translates for The Haitian Times, offered these directions on how to make a kite from materials he finds locally. He cleaned coconut fronds to make sticks.

“There is a fruit named kaimit,” he said, referring to starfruit in English. “When it’s unripe, it provides milk and that milk will be used as glue.” 

Finding a kremas expert

If there’s one thing Haitians can agree on, it’s that kremas is synonymous with the year-end holidays. But the agreement ends there because everyone has their preferred method for making the creamy milk-and-rum based drink. 

In Haiti and abroad, stories abound about relatives making it at Christmas or other special occasions like a wedding. But exactly how to make this simple, sweet cocktail can prove elusive. 

“My mother made it with alcohol and real coconut milk and then Nestle’s milk, said Sainfort Voltaire of Irvington, New Jersey. “She added anise, cinnamon and other flavorings. Then she boiled it,” he said. “I think she cooked it for a long time.” 

Some people use passion fruit or papaya juice instead of coconut milk. Others say it’s not kremas if Barbancourt Rhum isn’t used.

Many internet sites offer recipes for this delicious beverage as well as tips on how to avoid lumps.  

A Kremas Classic tasting-and-award show was recently held at Bonbon Lakay in Park Slope, New York. The event drew people who wanted to remember the enduring tradition of kremas and introduced others to a new beverage.

As long as connections like that are being made, Haitian traditions surely will endure in some form in Haiti and abroad. 

J.O. Haselhoef is the author of “Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti.” She co-founded "Yonn Ede Lot" (One Helping Another), a nonprofit that partnered with volunteer groups in La Montagne ("Lamontay"), Haiti from 2007-2013. She is a 2022 Fellow for the Columbia School of Journalism's Age Boom Academy. She writes and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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