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John Canoe, John Kooner, Junkanoo

At the beginning of the eighteenth century a new Christmas custom arose in the British West Indies. Called Jonkonnu, this Caribbean Christmas celebration blended African and English masquerade and mumming traditions. At one time Jonkonnu celebrations spread as far as the southern United States. The festival survives today in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Belize, St. Kitts-Nevis, Guyana, and Bermuda.

Jonkonnu in Jamaica

The origins of Jonkonnu reflect Jamaica's colonial history. The British seized control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1660 and established a colonial outpost there. Although some African slaves already lived on the island, in the late seventeenth century the English colonists began to import slaves from west Africa in great numbers to work on their sugar plantations. The English colonists brought many cultural traditions with them to Jamaica, including the celebration of Christmas with music, dancing, masquerades, and mumming. The African slaves retained their own music, dance, and masquerade traditions, for which they, too, sought an outlet. These two cultural streams flowed together in Jamaican Christmas celebrations, giving rise to Jonkonnu.

Jamaican Jonkonnu celebrations take place on December 26 (see also St. Stephen's Day). Most of the Jonkonnu performers are male. Bands of dancers prepare homemade costumes that identify them as specific characters associated with the festival masquerade. Some of these characters, such as "cowhead," clearly reflect African imagery. Others, like "the king" and "the queen," show remnants of British influence. Small bands of musicians accompany these dancers as they briefly parade to some public location. The bands are composed of both African instruments, like the gumbay drum, and European instruments, such as the fife. The dancing that takes place when the group arrives at the chosen site also illustrates this Afro-European cultural blend. The participants combine African dance movements with old European dance steps, such those from the quadrille. African cultural influences appear to dominate Jonkonnu dancing, probably because Jamaicans of African descent developed and kept the custom alive over the centuries.

No one knows for sure where the name "Jonkonnu" comes from. Some say it refers to an early eighteenth-century west African king, John Canoe. Others believe it represents a sloppy English pronunciation of a French phrase, gens inconnu, meaning "unknown people." They suggest that early observers gave that name to the ritual because they could not recognize the masked and costumed dancers.

Jonkonnu in the Caribbean

As Jonkonnu spread throughout the Caribbean, the people of different islands varied the costumes, parades, dances, festival name, and festival date. Belize dancers call their tradition "John Canoe" and perform it on Christmas and December 26, Boxing Day. In the Bahamas the festival is called "Junkanoo" and is celebrated between December 26 and January 1, New Year's Day. Bahamians use strips of colored paper to create dazzling costumes for Junkanoo. Today, with government sponsorship of the parade and costume competition, the elaborate costumes worn by top competitors resemble those of Trinidad's fabulous Carnival celebrations.

Jonkonnu in the United States

During slavery times American blacks in North Carolina also carried out the Jonkonnu ritual at Christmas time. They called the custom "John Kooner" and spoke of going "John Canoeing" or "John Kunering" on Christmas morning. Like their Caribbean counterparts, most participants in American Jonkonnu celebrations were men. They prepared homemade costumes embellished with strips of colorful cloth and also wore masks, some of which sported horns. Thus garbed, and armed with simple musical instruments such as drums, triangles, violins, and jew's harps, they made their way across town. The masqueraders stopped at the houses of the well-to-do, sang and danced for the occupants, and asked for money in return. They also entertained the people they met on their way. Some reports depict plantation slaves celebrating Jonkonnu on the grounds of the estate. The plantation owners enjoyed the music, dancing, and masquerading, and often rewarded the participants with small gifts, such as coins or scarves. Some slaveowners convinced themselves that the happiness the slaves enjoyed during this yearly festival justified the institution of slavery.

The nineteenth-century American version of Jonkonnu strongly resembles the Christmas mumming practices common in England at the time. Nevertheless, the custom probably arrived in the United States via Jamaica and the Bahamas. In past centuries, much trade from these areas entered the United States through the port town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Caribbean slaves familiar with Jonkonnu probably passed the custom on to American blacks via this trade route. After the Civil War African Americans began to abandon Jonkonnu. Oddly enough, as the tradition declined among African Americans, white youths began to adopt it. They called the seasonal masquerade "coonering" and kept it going from the 1890s until it finally died out in the early 1900s. (See also America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century.)

Further Reading

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of AmericanHolidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1987. Kane, Harnett T. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Nunly, John W., and Judith Bettleheim, eds. Caribbean Festival Arts. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1988. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Web Site

The Bahamas Tourism Office provides information on Jonkonnu at:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
(40.) S Wynter, "Jonkonnu in Jamaica: Towards the Interpretation of Folk Dance as a Cultural Process," Jamaica Journal, 4:2 (1970), 36; Kamau Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 4; Kamau Brathwaite, "The African Presence in Caribbean Literature," Daedalus, 103:2 (1974), 80; Glissant, "Creolization in the Making of the Americas," 82.
Nicole Brewer directs a production of Mark Williams's Jonkonnu at Howard University.
This brief reflection considers the third act civil war sequence that resonates with Maroon War dances and costumed rituals in the Jonkonnu festival of Jamaica that I saw as a child, focusing on the importance of the female in this sequence.
In 2014, we celebrated masquerade traditions from the Christmas season, with reference to the Puerto Rican Festival de Mascaras (Masks) celebrated in the town of Hatillo on December 28, the Day of the Holy Innocents, and a presentation of the Garifuna Wanaragua, which itself is a variation of Jamaican Jonkonnu. We included Jamaican masquerade performers in the program as well.
Commons often developed in outdoor spaces where publics assembled (to participate in Jamaican Jonkonnu revelries in Kingston or witness Charles II's execution in front of Whitehall's Banqueting House, to cite two examples); however, New World Drama continuously returns to the theater, where actors and audiences alike tested a wealth of colonial identities.
Finally, he is especially intrigued by possible spiritual dimensions of masquerades and references the work of Kenneth Bilby (e.g., 2010) on deep spiritual elements within ostensibly secular Jonkonnu traditions.
En Jamaique, le carnaval qui debuta avec le Roots Jonkonnu au sein duquel on comptait Cowhead, Pitchy Patchy, Devil, Warrior, Indian, s'accrut par l'addition de nouveaux personnages issus des << Fancy Dress >>--le roi, la reine, la jeune fille (Flower Girl)--ou representatifs de la societe en evolution--le Capitaine, l'agent de police, la femme enceinte ...
On Boxing Day, Jonkonnu, also known as John Canoe, is a traditional Christmas celebration involving elaborate street musical parades with mime artists dressed in colourful masquerades.
One good example of an artist story for young people is Jonkonnu, written by Amy Littlesugar and illustrated by Ian Schoenherr.
(35) With roots in West Africa and the early contact between West Africans and Europeans, Jonkonnu appears to have developed in Jamaica and spread to a number of other British possessions in the Caribbean.
(He does not seem to know Wolfgang Binder's essay on the same topic from 1992.) Genevieve Fabre traces the Caribbean Jonkonnu festival as negotiated role reversal, expressing a utopian desire for freedom.
Sylvia Winter, "Jonkonnu in Jamaica," Jamaica Journal (June 1970), 39.