For many on the outside looking in, their Haitian neighbors in Everett might appear to be celebrating New Year’s Day like everyone else – with the exception of the large amounts of squash they’ve been hoarding for weeks, or the long New Year’s Eve night spent in the kitchen over a large pot of soup.
But for the large numbers of those in Everett who came from Haiti, or have a Haitian heritage, Jan. 1 is primarily Haitian Independence Day, and it’s something that is tied to visiting family and eating the “Soup of Freedom” – otherwise known as Soup Joumou, a labor-intensive delicacy made from traditional pumpkin squash, potatoes, carrots, beef and a number of other ingredients. So while they celebrate a new year and a new beginning with everyone around them, they also celebrate the freedom they won in 1804.
While COVID-19 curtailed the celebration a little bit this year, and eliminated some of the usual in-person traditions, the celebration of Haitian Independence Day has been going strong in Everett for decades – many times with a lot of the city not even knowing the full story of what their Haitian neighbors are celebrating.
“Unless you have Haitians around you, you probably won’t know,” said Michelle Fenelon, who has grown up in Everett and works as a sports reporter. “My parents brought it to us from Haiti. I don’t think there is any Haitian that doesn’t always celebrate by eating soup on Jan. 1. My family taught us at a very young age about the importance of the soup. There are a lot of people that didn’t know about the soup until social media or unless family taught them at a young age. If you can taste freedom, that’s what it tastes like. Freedom tastes like Soup Joumou.”
What can be lost in the celebration for some, said Rev. Myrlande Desrosiers of the Everett Haitian Community Center (EHCC), is that Independence Day for Haiti is the day they won their freedom. Unlike the United States or other countries, Haitians weren’t set free. They fought for and won their freedom, which is part of a celebration that brings great pride to those in Everett and in Haiti, she said. There is a dramatic difference, she said, from being let go, or forcing someone to let you go.
She said Soup Joumou is important to the tradition – and why it stands for freedom and peace – because Haitian slaves were not allowed to eat the soup by those that enslaved them in Colonial times. While the slaves brought the food from Africa and had to prepare the delicacy for slaveowners, they were strictly forbidden from eating it. Likewise, being enslaved, they were not permitted to move about freely and see family and elders. So it is, even today in Everett, on Jan. 1 the first thing Haitian people do is eat the soup and go around seeing elders to show them respect (known as Ti Jou Dla) – though this year that was largely done on Zoom or by phone.
“We try to keep it the same way and now more than ever,” she said. “It’s not just the food or the soup. It’s what it represents. It can be taken to a new level now…This is our 217th year of independence. Haitians might be poor and our country might be a mess, but the idea survives that we are the first Black Republic and that’s important. We were not emancipated and set free. We fought for our freedom and won it. History should inspire change or greatness and today’s fight for justice. It should be about doing right and moving upward and forward. This history should not make you feel nothingness. That is what Soup Joumou represents and that’s why we eat it on Jan. 1.”
All of those things come together on Jan. 1 – where Desrosiers said people wake up to the aroma, the activity and the excitement in the morning – with the soup just about to be finished and eaten all day long.
Desrosiers, who came to the US at the age of 15, is like others who celebrated Independence Day substantially in Haiti, and now also for many years as an adult in Everett. Guerline Alcy, who works at City Hall, said she came to the United States at age 11. She recalls that in Haiti that New Year’s Eve was the night Haitian children got a “free pass” to stay up late. It was a time they put on their Sunday best clothing in the Ti Jou Dla tradition and tailor/seamstress shops boomed as everyone wanted the best new clothes for Jan. 1. That would be followed by going to Midnight Mass and returning home to eat the Soup Joumou.
“Everyone would drink Soup Joumou with friends and family and the kids would just walk around the neighborhood while the elders would pass out candy or money to the young kids,” she recalled. “It was really a time enjoyed by all. Now, I think every Haitian in the Diaspora does Soup Joumou on the 1st of January to keep our memories alive. It doesn’t stop there, the big celebration of the Independence win is celebrated on January 2nd where every household cooks a huge meal to celebrate. Of course it didn’t happen this year because of COVID-19, but I’m sure in Haiti, where more families live together, they did not scale back.”
City Councilor Gerly Adrien said her family always celebrated Independence Day in Everett like it was Christmas. There were always gifts, and people talked about their prayers and hopes for the new year. However, given she is the first Haitian American elected to office in Everett, it has also now taken on a new significance in the meaning of fighting for independence.
“My father always talked to us about coming to the US as a Black man and it is very different from being in Haiti,” she said. “In Haiti, you’re a regular person, but here you don’t feel as free. The soup was a reminder of where he came from and who his people are and what they fought for and won. Coming here, you can forget what you fought for. So, we always talked about that.”
For Adrien, being the first Haitian American office-holder in Everett, there is a significance attached to her that simply comes with the territory and is often celebrated and conveyed in that community on Independence Day, she said.
That even goes for her father.
“It makes me proud to be elected because my father never thought that could happen here,” she said. “In Haiti, my great grandfather was a senator. We didn’t think that could happen here. For me, it’s great to be part of that history and tradition. Haitians are strong and we can fight and we can win.”
Fenelon said her tradition growing up in Everett has revolved around Haitians from several Parishes in Everett, Somerville and other locales celebrating Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston – a similar ceremony as is traditionally held in Haiti and is also followed by a communal eating of Soup Joumou.
There at the Cathedral, the youth group she leads at her Parish will be asked to perform a dance, or do a reading, or some other task. Coming together, in recent years, has also meant more people outside of the Haitian community – especially young people – wanting to participate in the tradition with her.
When she was working as a reporter at ESPN in Connecticut some years ago, she recalled going out to church on New Year’s Eve and coming back to the studio with some Soup Joumou – which she shared with a grateful co-worker.
“I brought him soup and he was so thankful and happy to be a part of the tradition,” she said. “I see so many people who want to know more about it and learn about it…My favorite part is how friends and people from other cultures want to join in the tradition and celebrate with us.”
For Rev. Desrosiers, that sharing of the tradition is perfectly appropriate, and in a multi-cultural city like Everett, could be taken to a new level in celebrating freedom, peace and justice. It is, in fact, why she has come to call it “Freedom Food” or the “Food of Peace.”
“We can all understand in modern times what it meant for the slave,” she said. “They were suddenly free, so they went around to see people and they were eating the food that was forbidden. It was so good. It’s why I call it Freedom Food or Peace Food. It’s the most peaceful time of year for Haitians. In the Christian tradition and in Haiti, it’s also a time to make peace with enemies. It’s a time to start anew.”