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Date Observed: December 26 to January 1
Location: West Indies and formerly in the
southeastern United States

J unkanoo is a Christmas-time celebration that originated among slaves in the British West Indies and spread to the southern United States as early as the 18th century. While Junkanoo is no longer held in the United States, it continues to be a major national cultural event in the Caribbean, particularly in the Bahamas, and also in Jamaica, Guyana, Bermuda, and other former British colonies. Depending on where it is celebrated, Junkanoo is known by a variety of names, such as Jonkanoo, Johnkankus, John Canoe, John Kuner, John Kooner, and Kunering.

Historical Background

There are numerous word-of-mouth accounts on the origins of Junkanoo - both the festival and the etymology of the word itself. For example, some attribute the name to Scottish settlers in the Bahamas. Junkanoo paraders' attire was composed of at-hand materials, such as shrubs, leaves, stones, bottles, and paper. It is said that Scots referred to the costumes as junk enoo, which translates as "junk enough." Another suggests French lineage; the definition of gens l'inconnu, meaning "unknown people," speaks to the secret identities of the masked Junkanoo participants. Further French attribution has been given to the festival's short prominence in the eastern United States, where sugarcane field hands were referred to as jeunes caneurs. Another theory is that the name might have referred to a type of small household canoe that parade participants carried.

Most Bahamians and scholars who have researched various possibilities have found common ground in the person of John Canoe (also known as John Connu, Jony, Jonny, John Kooner, and Junkanoo). This African chief was born around 1720 in Ghana along the Ivory Coast. Reputed to be influential in the West Indian slave trade, John Canoe reportedly outwitted the Dutch and English, gaining control of Fort Brandenbury on the coast of Ghana, which furthered his hero-like status among his people. Another traditional tale also links Junkanoo's roots to Africa. The name of Yokonomo, or Jankomo, was recorded nearly two and one-half centuries before slaves were transported to the Bahamas. He is said to have created the hypnotic one-step-forward/twosteps-backward dance that is one of the central components of the modern Junkanoo.

Creation of the Festival

Junkanoo celebrations stem from west Africa, dating back to at least the 18th century when slaves were brought to the West Indies and the southeastern coast of America. In the West Indies, slaves were given three days off per year - January 1, December 25, and December 26 - with permission granted to perform cultural observances on the first and last of these dates (see also West Indies Emancipation Day).

West Indian practices spread with slaves taken to the port cities of North Carolina, where they carried on the tradition at Christmas, calling it Johnkankus, John Kooner, or a similar name (see also Slaves' Christmas).


To prepare for the festival, participants made drums out of animal skins stretched over frames and other musical instruments from animal bones, sticks, and triangles. Costumes were fashioned from a variety of found materials. On Christmas morning, the masqueraders would parade through town, entertaining onlookers. They would also stop at wealthy homes to dance and sing in return for gifts. African-American observances of Junkanoo diminished after the Civil War. Freed slaves were not interested in maintaining connections with their former lives of bondage, and Junkanoo died out around 1865. However, at about the same time, young whites revived the ritual and called it "coonering." During the Christmas holidays, they would parade around in old clothes, looking bedraggled. By the early 1900s, though, the custom was no longer practiced.

In the Bahamas, however, Junkanoo remains a major event. About 50,000 people attend the Junkanoo events in Nassau. Locals - and the more adventuresome tourists - become active participants, starting out as "standees" and then turning into "revelers," who rush along designated city blocks as the spirit moves them. Each day's parade (as the celebration is commonly called) begins at 1:00 A . M . and lasts until 9 A . M .

There are three main components to Junkanoo: music, dance, and costume. Each intertwines into a kaleidoscope of color and sound that has become an intrinsic part of the Bahamian culture, so much so that the Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture has jurisdiction over the official competitions which judge Junkanoo participants and award coveted prizes. Entrants begin preparations as much as six months in advance and are subsidized by corporate sponsors; costs can run as high as $100,000.

Entrants known as "Groups" are drawn from almost all of the 14 islands and commonly consist of 500-1,000 people. Four major groups, the Valley Boys, the Saxon Superstars, Roots, and One Family, compete today, with dozens of others also participating at lesser competitive levels. Until the 1960s, paraders were male only. Now, competition is coed, and there is even a Junior Junkanoo Parade in an effort to apprentice cultural craftsmanship and foster Bahamanian heritage.

Elaborate costumes are designed around each group's particular and highly guarded theme. Materials have evolved from at-hand, "junk enough" to six simple items: corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, aluminum rods, tie wire, contact cement and glue. The Junkanoo beat is created by a mélange of goatskin-covered drums, cowbells, horns, whistles and brass instruments. The centuries-old one-step-forward/two-steps-backward dance remains central. However, variations such as the "Vola Shuffle" have appeared upon the scene and even professional choreographers have been introduced into the mix.

Contact and Web Site

Government of the Bahamas Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture E. Hill St., 7th Fl., Post Office Bldg. P.O. Box N-4891 Nassau, N.P. The Bahamas 242-322-6250/3; fax: 242-322-6546

Further Reading

Barlas, Robert. Cultures of the World: Bahamas. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2000. Eklof, Barbara. For Every Season: The Complete Guide to African American Celebra- tions, Traditional to Contemporary. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Gulevich, Tanya. "Jonkonnu." In Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebra- tions. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Smalls, Irene. "Roots of an African-American Christmas." . Williams, Colleen Madonna Flood, and James Henderson, eds. The Bahamas (Discover the Caribbean Series). Broomall, PA: Mason Crest Publishers, 2002. (young adult)
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
References in periodicals archive ?
Junkanoo is tightly plaited into the Bahamian psyche, yet seldom do we dwell on its roots, which have been within us since we first became aware of ourselves.