Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau Created New Orleans’ Midsummer Festival
Mardi Gras may be the city’s biggest party, but St. John’s Eve is its most important religious festival
Today is St. John’s Eve, a holiday celebrated at spots around the globe–and, closer to home, in New Orleans.
Falling on June 23, St. John’s Eve is one of many celebrations of the summer solstice that occur around the world, writes Maria Konnikova for Scientific American. “With the rise of Christianity and accompanying threat to pagan traditions, the summer solstice became celebrated in many parts of Europe as the day of St. John the Baptist—St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia, the Festival of Ivanje in Croatia,” Konnikova writes.
In New Orleans, the holiday gets a uniquely Voodoo twist. It is traditionally celebrated with a head-washing ceremony that honors the priestess who started the tradition, as well as carrying echoes of baptism.
The New Orleans version of the holiday stretches back to the 1830s, when famed Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau started hosting annual feasts on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain. Witnesses said Laveau’s annual feast, which included a head-washing ritual, was “a blend between a gospel revival and Jazz Fest,” writes Nicholas Wooten for The Times-Picayune.
These big, public parties were a departure from previous Voodoo celebrations in New Orleans, writes Cassie Pruyn for NolaVie. Many people–particularly enslaved black people–came to New Orleans from Haiti in the early 1800s, she writes. Haiti was in the throes of a revolution, and “New Orleans’ elites in the early years of the 19th century were terrified a similar uprising might happen [there],” she writes.
So the city council enacted a law that mostly prevented black city residents from getting together in big groups. “Therefore, Voodoo rituals of the day had to hide from view, which meant–in the days before the city’s vast cypress forests were drained and developed–they moved into the swamps.”
That Laveau was able to hold her celebration with more publicity speaks to her role in New Orleans’ public life. But it was more than just a party, writes historian Edward Branley for GO Nola. New Orleans Voodoo (which modern scholars suggest should be spelled ‘Vodou’) practice revolved around priests and priestesses, Branley writes, who were community heads as well as spiritual leaders. Laveau was the most well known, he writes.
One of the reasons for that is that Laveau is credited with bringing Voodoo into the open and displaying it for white voyeurs, writes Pruyn. The result was a celebration that attracted “thousands of curiosity-seekers, journalists and freelance writers,” one Times-Picayune reporter who Pruyn quotes noted in 1924, years after Laveau's death. But those curiosity-seekers, the reporter noted, sometimes wondered if they were getting the real deal.
“It is generally known that Marie LaVeau [sic] welcomed whites to this particular saturnalia, and it is often remarked that it was the decoy, the real worship of the Voodoo taking place at other times in remote regions of the swamp,” the reporter wrote.
Laveau, a hairdresser born of a Creole mother and white father, was “the most famous and purportedly the most powerful of the city’s Voodoo practitioners” in the nineteenth century, writes Atlas Obscura. “She sold charms and pouches of gris gris (some combination of herbs, oils, stones, bones, hair, nails and grave dirt), told fortunes and gave advice to New Orleans residents of every strata.”
Laveau’s life and afterlife (her tomb is still a much-visited attraction) had a huge impact on New Orleans and public perception of Voodoo. Her daughter–also named Marie Laveau–was also a famed Voodoo practitioner who continued the St. John’s Eve tradition. Her 1874 event attracted 12,000 spectators, according to Atlas Obscura.