Christianity, Christian Holidays, and African-Rooted Spiritual Systems

For Christians this is a time, presumably, to reflect on the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ and to reunite with family. Practitioners of African-rooted spiritual systems are doing and/or thinking differently depending on their relationship to the Christian religion. This article focuses generally on Las Reglas Bantu / Palo Monte, Lukumi / La Regla de Ocha, and the Brazilian Yoruba rooted practice known as Candomblé, offering an overview of the relationships and history fused with my own analysis.

Lukumi / La Regla de Ocha
If you follow me on Instagram, you will have noticed that I recently posted images in honor of two Afro-Cuban Orisa feast days: one for orisa Sango, syncretized with Santa Barbara; and the other for orisa Obaluaiye syncretized with Saint Lazarus. Amongst practitioners, you will often hear Lukumi referred to as Santeria and the practitioners as Santeros. This is not incorrect. Keep in mind the history of African-rooted spiritual systems in the Americas. These traditions and their practitioners were under constant threat of attack from the colonialist slave system that was, in Cuba and Brazil, in place until 1886 and 1888 respectively. Even after slavery ended, the oppression leveled at practitioners of African rooted spiritual systems continued, as a matter of course, well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

The language of these traditions have always reflected the history. One must look to the liturgical language, commonly called bozal, which is a creole comprised of Yoruba of, at least, the 19th century, if not older, and Spanish. The syncretism of orisa with Catholic saints, and the corresponding linguistic references to orisa as santos and the practice as Santeria, was, in my opinion, a survival tactic to maintain the safety of its practitioners, and to keep their beliefs from being completely and totally destroyed by the colonial state. Many of the famous mutual aid societies, referred to as cabildos, include names of Catholic saints. If you knew the correspondence, you knew what orisa was hallmark of that cabildo.

There has been a move, over the past nearly 60 years away from the use of the Spanish language terminology (Santeria, santero/a, etc.) and referring to orisa as saints, largely by non-Spanish speaking, non-Latino practitioners. While I agree, Santa Barbara is not Sango, it is an important part of Lukumi history to know and understand how Catholicism was used as a cover to shield our traditions in an oppressive and violent environment. Knowing the history allows us to more effectively practice, and for those with godchildren or serving clients, this allows the legacy of our oral tradition to be passed down as accurately as possible.

Candomblé Ketu
On Friday, July 29, 1983 an article in the Brazilian newspaper Jornal da Bahia titled “Candomblé diz não ao sincretismo” (Candomblé says no to syncretism) included the following excerpt (translation mine, link to original Portuguese here).

From here on out, Candomble practitioners will no longer learn their Orisa tradition in syncretism with the Catholic faith. The Bahian Iyas and Babalorisas also no longer want to permit that their religion be treated as folklore, a sect, animism, nor primitive religion, " as always happens in this country and in this city". They also want to halt the use of their ritual clothing and ceremonies used in tourist events…

…Mãe Stella de Oxossi, - one of the most respected Iyalorisas of Bahia, always averse to publicity and the press, spoke exclusively to Jornal da Bahia, explaining:
- The saints and Catholic images have their value, We are not giving up belief, for example, in Saint Bárbara. Without a doubt, an elevated spirit. But we know that Yansa is an other energy, she isn’t Saint Barbara. One can not impose religion; it depends on each person’s conscience. But we want respect for Candomblé. This has nothing to do, for example, with putting Yansa’s food at the foot of St. Barbara's image. It does not make any sense. The food is for Yansa; it's another energy, completely different from what Saint Barbara is, you see.

A Candomblé Ketu initiate of Casa Branca lineage shared with me that there are still houses descendant of these original Ketu lineages in Brazil that halt all festivals and ceremonies between the beginning of Lent and Corpus Christi. This time is considered a period of rest. Upon the completion of this period, they resume their liturgical calendar.

The use of the Catholic liturgical calendar and other syncretic practices were a function of the social environment in which Candomblé developed. The social, economic, political, geological, and topographical conditions in Brazil (and Cuba too) were not and are not those in Yorubaland. Also, I reiterate, it can not be underestimated the intense volume of oppression launched at practitioners and their traditions. Nonetheless, the 1983 position set out by the leaders of the great Candomble Houses also makes sense, and is in my opinion also true and important. As times change, we must understand our traditions in the contemporary context in which we find ourselves as practitioners.

Las Reglas Bantu / Palo Monte
The Bakongo people, one of many Bantu peoples who contributed practices and ideology to the rites known as Las Reglas Bantu, commonly known as Palo Monte, experienced Christianity as early as the 15th century, previous to their forced arrival to Cuba and had incorporated into it into their indigenous beliefs. Many already spoke Portuguese. We see remnants of this knowledge in sundy aspects of our rites.

Certain Bakongo royalty converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Others, like Dona Beatriz, also known as Kimpa Vita, a practitioner of indigenous Bakongo spirituality, publicly declared that she was possessed by the Saint Anthony. She considered Saint Anthony an nkita (a long dead ancestor). While possessed by Saint Anthony she had visions that Jesus Christ was not born in Nazareth, but rather Mbanza Kongo (capital of the Bakongo kingdom). Dona Beatriz and her Antoninian ministry began to spread these and other messages, and calling for the unification of Kongo territories. I imagine her detractors didn’t take kindly to that and that is, at least, one of the reasons why she was killed. James Thornton has written an informative text on Dona Beatriz. You may find it here.

That said, the Paleros I know, who happen to mostly be Mayomberos, put in work on Christmas eve and Christmas Day. During Holy Week, some of us really put in work. I have been informed through conversations with elders that Paleros of the Santo Cristo Buen Viaje ilk, observe all Christian holy days. I am a practitioner of Palo Mayombe, of the Brama Con Brama lineage, founded in eastern Cuba. We work for ourselves and the people we serve every day. Christian holy days are no different. Holy Week is a period many of us do some our most efficacious work.

However you spend the forthcoming holidays, I wish you a plentiful and prosperous time for you and yours. I will spend mine doing what Paleros in my lineage do, working Palo. My schedule is open Saturday - Monday, December 22-25 specifically for this purpose. Do reach out, if you are so inclined.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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