Odunde Festival

Odunde Festival

Date Observed: Second Sunday in June
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Odunde Festival brings hundreds of followers of Yoruba cultural and religious traditions to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the second Sunday in June each year. Odunde (oh-doon-day) means "Happy New Year" in the Yoruba language of west Africa, and celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and people of African descent worldwide who observe the Yoruba faith.

Historical Background

Traditional religious practices celebrated at the festival stem from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. In accordance with the belief system, Olodumare (ohlow-DOO-may-ray), the supreme being, holds all power in the universe, gives life, and is directly involved in earthly affairs through hundreds of intermediaries known as orishas (aw-REE-SHAWS). Devotees venerate the orishas with rituals either individually or in ceremonies conducted by priests or priestesses.

Creation of the Festival

Lois Fernandez visited Africa in the 1970s and observed festivals for various orishas in Nigerian towns and villages. Upon her return to the United States, Fernandez hoped to duplicate such a festival in Philadelphia, her hometown. She was particularly impressed and moved by ceremonies honoring Oshun (aw-SHOON), an orisha associated with rivers. She had seen Oshun festivals at riverbanks in Nigerian as well as U.S. cities.

Fernandez and a group of family and friends were determined to make the festival happen near the Schuylkill River, but there were bureaucratic hurdles and doubters. However, Fernandez and her supporters had a mission: to convince the community that they could stage a cultural event that would bring African Americans together for a rewarding and long-lasting celebration. The group accomplished its goal when the first festival, then known as the Oshun Festival, took place in 1975 by the Schuylkill River. Later, the name was changed to the Odunde Festival.

Over the years, there has been organized opposition to the festival as neighborhoods have struggled with gentrification - affluent or middle-class people buying and upgrading urban property, often displacing lower-income people. Opponents have presented petitions to city officials in attempts to get the festival moved to a location other than South Street in central Philadelphia. But Odunde supporters have prevailed, defending their right to keep the festival where it is.


The Odunde Festival brings together devotees of Ifa (a god who knows each person's destiny), Santería (Yoruba-based traditions from Cuba), Candomblé (African-based religious traditions in Brazil), and other followers of traditional African cultural and religious systems (see also Honoring Santería Orishas; Ifa Festival and Yoruba National Convention; and Olokun Festival). Overseen by a Yoruba priest or priestess, the Odunde ceremonies begin with a procession led by Egungun - dancers who wear masks representing ancestral spirits. Sacred batáa drummers chant and drum to the orishas, and followers dance and sing as they proceed toward the Schuylkill River where offerings of fruit and flowers are made to Oshun.

After the procession returns to the starting point on South Street, huge crowds gather along 10 city blocks. Vendors from many African nations, the Caribbean, and Brazil sell food, crafts, and other merchandise. Performers on several stages and at street corners entertain participants.

Writer Junious Ricardo Stanton offered this description of his festival experience in Chicken Bones: A Journal : "Being at Odunde is like a mystical baptism. The festival there immerses you in a vibratory sea of blackness. You get dipped into a positive spirit of being African and come up revived, energized, and feeling good."

To celebrate the festival's 20th anniversary in 1995, the Philadelphia Folklore Project presented an exhibit on the festival, titled "ODUNDE: Preserving Cultural Traditions." Through photographs, paintings, memorabilia, and narratives, the exhibit was designed to highlight the festival's importance to the city. In 2005 the exhibit was updated to mark Odunde's 30th anniversary. More than 300,000 people attended that year.

Contacts and Web Sites

Odunde P.O. Box 21748 Philadelphia, PA 19146 215-732-8508

"ODUNDE Exhibition" Philadelphia Folklore Project 735 S. 50th St. Philadelphia, PA 19143 215-726-1106

Further Reading

Brandon, George. Santería from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. De La Torre, Miguel A. Santería: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America . Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. González-Wippler, Migene. Santería: The Religion. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2004. Murphy, Joseph M. Santería: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Núñez, Luis Manuel. Santería: A Practical Guide to Afro-Caribbean Magic. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1992. Stanton, Junious Ricardo. "Odunde Celebrates 27th Year: One of America's Largest Street Festivals." Chicken Bones: A Journal, n.d. Olokun Festival

Odunde Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Ifa, Santeria, Yoruba)
Date of Observation: Second Sunday in June
Where Celebrated: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Symbols and Customs: Offerings, Procession, Street Fair


The Odunde Festival (formerly known as the Oshun Festival) was created in 1975 by Lois Fernandez, who organized friends, family members, and the residents of her south Philadelphia community to stage the one-day event. Odunde (oh-doon-day), which means "Happy New Year" in the Yoruba language of western Africa, celebrates the coming of another year for people who observe traditional African cultural and religious systems, particularly the Ifa, Santeria, and Yoruba faiths. In accordance with these belief systems, hundreds of spirits known as orishas are directly involved with the earthly activities of humans. Devotees venerate the orishas with rituals either individually or in ceremonies conducted by priests or priestesses.

Fernandez was inspired to create the festival by her earlier visits to Africa, where she first attended festivals honoring orishas. She was particularly impressed by ceremonies honoring Oshun (alternately, Ochun), a feminine orisha associated with rivers. Having observed festivals for Oshun at riverbanks first in Nigeria and later in various U.S. cities, Fernandez was moved to organize such a festival near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. There were many bureaucratic and organizational challenges posed by critics of the idea. But Fernandez and her supporters convinced the community that they could stage a cultural event that would bring African Americans together for a rewarding and long-lasting celebration.

The first festival was a huge success, drawing hundreds of people to participate in a ceremonial PROCESSION to honor Oshun with chanting, dancing, drumming, and OFFERINGS made at the Schuylkill River. Within two years the event had grown to include a STREET FAIR featuring a variety of African and African-American vendors and entertainers. The festival now typically draws more than 500,000 attendees each year, with nearly one fourth of the participants traveling to Philadelphia from other areas of the U.S. as well as several African countries. Many festival participants and attendees dress in traditional African clothing, particularly the observers of the Yoruba, Santeria, Ifa, and Voudun faiths, who typically dress in traditional white robes.

The Odunde Festival itself is held on the second Sunday in June, although related activities are held over the whole weekend. Typically included in the weekend are events such as workshops, seminars, cultural presentations, and a reception for the ambassadors of African nations participating in the festival. These events are sponsored by Odunde, Inc., an organization that produces year-round educational and cultural programs in addition to the Odunde Festival.



The Odunde Festival procession leads devotees to the Schuylkill River, where offerings of fruit, flowers, honey, and coins are made to Oshun. Offerings are made to ask Oshun for blessings or to thank her for blessings bestowed in the previous year.


Overseen by a Yoruba priest or priestess, the Odunde Festival ceremonies begin with a procession led by traditional dancers wearing masks that represent ancestral spirits. Sacred drummers chant and drum to the orishas, and devotees dance and sing as they proceed toward the Schuylkill River, where offerings are made to Oshun. The procession then returns to its starting point for the opening of the street fair.

Street Fair

The Odunde Festival includes a street fair that takes places along ten city blocks in south Philadelphia. More than 300 vendors from throughout the U.S. as well as many South American, Caribbean, and African nations sell food, crafts, and other merchandise. Attendees are entertained by performers on several stages and at various street corners.


Gay, Kathlyn. African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007. Wiggins, William H. Jr., and Douglas DeNatale, eds. Jubilation!: African American Celebrations in the Southeast. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.



Philadelphia Folklore Project www.folkloreproject.org/programs/exhibits/odunde

Odunde Festival

Early June
The Odunde Festival takes place annually on the streets of south Philadelphia over the second weekend in June. Odunde means "Happy New Year" in the language of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. A celebration of the African new year, the Odunde Festival centers on a vibrant procession to the Schuylkill River, where participants make offerings of flowers and fruit to the River Goddess Oshun. Oshun is one of 401 orishas, similar to Christian saints, revered in the Yoruba religion, Ifa. Drumming, singing, incantations, and prayers accompany the procession and offerings. All are welcome to take part in the parade and ceremonies.
The festival also features a wealth of entertainment, from rap to fashion shows to tap dancing to African dance. African-centered food, crafts, clothing, and jewelry are on offer. The festival also has incorporated such events as a reception for ambassadors and an African business symposium. Founded in 1975 with a $100 grant, the popular, free festival welcomes as many as 500,000 participants over its three days.
Odunde, Inc.
P.O. Box 21748
Philadelphia, PA 19146
215-732-8510; fax: 215-732-8508
AAH-2007, p. 361
HolSymbols-2009, p. 652