A version of this post was originally published on MissTalie.com
My family moved to Haiti from Philadelphia when I was 7 years old. The culture shock that ensued was real, so there were cultural differences between Philadelphia and Port-au-Prince that my parents took their time to explain to my siblings and me. For example, I was a big fan of the ice cream truck back in the states; in Port-au-Prince, I was told I would be able to find Fresko instead. I was also a firm believer in the tooth fairy. My parents– glad to no longer have to leave money under my pillow– explained that the tooth fairy was an American fairy who only served children in the U.S. In Haiti, we were to throw the tooth that just fell out onto the roof of the house and yell “Rats, rats! I’ve thrown a beautiful tooth up to you! In return, please give me an ugly tooth!” If you asked for a beautiful tooth, the rats, out of spite, would give you ugly teeth. These are little childhood concepts that were clearly explained to me. But no one ever took the time to tell me how Santa Claus worked in Haiti. Haitian Santa was introduced to me by Konkou Chante Nwèl.
Konkou Chante Nwèl was a Christmas song contest hosted by Telemax. It started some time in the 90’s when Telemax was the best Haitian television station. This competition is where a number of Haitian artists we now love got started for example: Carimi, Stanley Georges, and Mika Ben, to name a few. This competition was our version of “American Idol.” The first round began with hundreds of submissions, and 10 songs were selected among the hundreds to be played throughout the Christmas season. People from all around Haiti came with their compositions in hopes of winning the grand prize: a brand new Nissan Sentra.
While the trend of of tragic Haitian Christmas songs did begin before Konkou Chante Nwèl, this competition solidified the tradition. Many of the song entries were Christmas wish lists for a better Haiti, better infrastructure, world peace etc. Throughout these holiday themed laments, one man was looked to to fix all of these problems– Tonton Nwèl, Kreyòl for “Uncle” or “Old Man Christmas”; Santa Claus.
Tonton Nwèl, through these songs, has many faces. Tonton Nwèl the mediator, is approached by a number of composers to bring peace among warring countries, and to bring harmony among Haiti’s politicians. Yolette LaGrandeur, the winner of Konkou Chante Nwel 1998 sang: “Tonton Nwèl al mete lapè kote ki gen lagè, w’a va nan Kosovo, w’a va nan Palestine…al pale ak politisyen nou yo, di yo sispann goumen, goumen dèyè pouvwa.” Tonton Nwèl, go bring peace where there is war. Go to Kosovo, go to Palestine…go speak to our politicians, tell them to stop fighting; fighting over power.
Tonton Nwèl the healer is pleaded to for a cure for AIDS, cancer, and all other illnesses plaguing the Haitian population. A number of songs give Tonton Nwèl the responsibilities and burdens of Haiti’s often absent government. He is asked to supply better roads, electricity, telephones. Tonton Nwèl is given powers far beyond the powers of the traditional jolly old Santa Claus.
Santa transforms from a simple gift giver into a mediator taking our prayers from our lips to God’s ears; he takes on the role of a spirit, a saint, a lwa.
The difference between Tonton Nwel and God becomes ambiguous in a lot of these songs. Tonton Nwèl seems to control who lives and who dies, and the words “Bondye” and “Tonton Nwèl” are used interchangeably throughout different passages. Marc Aurel in his song that won third place in the Konkou Chante Nwèl of 1999, described the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. “Limen Chandèl pou Tonton Nwèl, limen balen pou Emanyèl…” “Light candles for Santa Claus, light candles for Emmanuel,” he sang. Tonton Nwèl becomes deified. He transforms from a simple gift giver into a mediator taking our prayers from our lips to God’s ears; he takes on the role of a spirit, a saint, a lwa.
Konkou Chante Nwèl gave Haitians the opportunity to express and reflect on what exactly the role of a Santa Claus like figure is in Haitian society. As a result, it became apparent that there is no clear definition of a Haitian Santa Claus. A number of songs in the competition attempted to identify and define Tonton Nwèl. Shune Simeon 2nd place winner of Konkou Chante Nwel in 2000, questioned Christmas what exactly it is. “Nwèl, Nwèl, Nwèl, Are you love? A spirit? Jesus Christ? Papa Legba?”
Moise Champagne, also a contestant in 2000, suggested that Tonton Nwèl was not meant for Haitians at all. Roughly translated, he states: Santa Claus comes in the night, so he does not know our lifestyles during the day. But there are 7 or 8 million Tonton Nwèls that are much more qualified for the job, who know exactly what gifts Haiti needs. (7 to 8 million being an estimation of Haiti’s population at the time; therefore, we should be our own Santas.) Gregory Telfort winner of the 2001 cycle also rejects the idea of Tonton Nwèl. In his song he says Santa brings gifts for children who work well in school, but what about the children in Telfort’s village who were never given the opportunity to go to school. Santa leaves gifts under trees, but hurricane season has done away with the branches of the trees in the backyard. Instead, he says, his Tonton Nwèl is his father, the one who feeds him, who cares for him in this life.
Throughout the overall confusion to identify Tonton Nwèl and what his exact role is in Haiti, one thing is constant: everyone is discouraged with him.
Throughout the overall confusion to identify Tonton Nwèl and what his exact role is in Haiti, one thing is constant: everyone is discouraged with him. The songs were oftentimes a synopsis of the sorrows that the Haitian people experienced that past year, and Tonton Nwel became the whipping boy. Where was Tonton Nwèl as people suffered, as people died? I think something about Santa Claus gets lots in translation. Santa Claus is a fat white man that comes in the night, slides down your chimney, eats your cookies and leaves gifts. Culturally, that character does not make sense in a country like Haiti. We don’t have chimneys people can slide down. The concept of leaving cookies out for a trespasser to help himself to is laughable. And if such a magical man really is here to bring joy and presents on Christmas day, how absurd would it be to ask for something as trivial as toys when faced with hunger and instability? Santa Claus in other countries is a simple character made up for children’s pleasure, but Haiti isn’t a simple place. And since the gifts Haitians ask for (peace, food, water) have still yet to be brought to us, Tonton Nwèl remains that drunk uncle that gives you a good laugh, promises you the world, and never follows through.
Perhaps we are taking the myth a little bit too seriously. One could say the Tonton Nwèl being sung of in these songs is just a case of Haitians’ inability to separate reality from fantasy. After all, it seems like Telfort might not actually understand that everyone’s Tonton Nwèl around the world is actually their father, like he claims. Champagne told us that we have 7 or 8 million Tonton Nwèl, so we don’t need Santa Claus, but it was never a fictional Santa’s job to replace us. These songwriters all sound confused. On the other hand, it is possible that they’re not confused at all. Maybe Haitians screamed and cried to a make believe Tonton Nwèl about hunger, corruption, greed and death because it was safer to yell at him than to name who our gripes really lie with. It is less dangerous to be mad at Tonton Nwèl than to admit to being furious at our government, at ourselves, at God.
As tragic as these songs are, I love every single one of them. Christmas just does not feel like Christmas unless I get to sing a song blaming Tonton Nwèl for the damage a hurricane did to Port-au-Prince in 1998. I dance and sing to them with a smile on my face, until the sobering reality settles that the tragic situation that inspired these sad songs still remain. And so we will continue to shake our fists in the wake of Christmas carols until Haiti gives us something to thank Tonton Nwèl for. Until that day, as Stanley George crooned in his 2000 Konkou Chante Nwèl song, we will continue to wish each other Jwaye Nowèl kanmèm…Merry Christmas, anyway.
Enjoy the video above. The 2nd place winner of Konkou Chante Nwel 1998. One of my favorites, a simple celebration of Christmas in Haiti by Max Aubin (May he rest in peace.)