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Date Observed: May or June
Location: New York

Pinkster was a spring celebration that came to America with Dutch immigrants in the 1600s. They settled in parts of what are now the states of New York and New Jersey and called their adopted home New Netherland. Dutch slave owners allowed enslaved Africans to take part in the holiday festivities. By the 1800s, the Dutch no longer dominated the celebration, and Pinkster became primarily an AfricanAmerican holiday. In 1811, the town council of Albany, New York, passed a law banning the festival.

Historical Background

During the 17th century, Dutch immigrants celebrated renewal of life in the spring, a festival that corresponded with the Christian holy day Whitsunday, or Pentecost. The Pinkster festival name stems from Pinksteren, Dutch for Pentecost, a holiday that takes place seven weeks after Easter and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus's followers after his death and resurrection. It was also a time for visiting family and friends. Dutch owners allowed their slaves to join the festivities, giving them a brief respite from hard, tedious labor.

Although slavery is commonly associated with the South, there were more than 5,000 slaves in the North in 1700. By 1790, there were more than 32,700 slaves in just two states: New York and New Jersey. Slaves labored on New England farms that were far apart, and often their family members were sold to farmers long distances away.

Creation of the Festival

Between 1790 and 1810 when Pinkster celebrations were at their peak in Albany, New York, the three-to-four-day holiday combined Dutch and African slave cultures. But as the Dutch began to focus more on American holidays such as Independence Day, Pinkster increasingly took on an African flavor and became known as an African-American holiday. Enslaved people who gathered were able to experience independence for a short time; reunite with family and friends; make a little money by selling crafts, berries, herbs, sassafras bark, and beverages; and maintain African traditions. Through speeches, storytelling, and song, slaves also mimicked and poked fun at whites in subtle ways.


Weeks before the Albany Pinkster festivities, preparations for the event began on Pinkster Hill, which is now the site of the New York State Capitol. People built brush shelters, much like those in Africa, or they set up tents. At the top of the hill, arbors formed an arena for King Charles, a well-known slave from Angola (see also Negro Election Days and Coronation Festivals).

When King Charles arrived, he led a procession through town and up the hill where he was welcomed in a royal ceremony. From his heightened position, King Charles could look down upon the town below, a symbolic representation of the importance of African kings and leaders as well as an ironic display of a reverse of power. The king directed the holiday activities, which included long drum and dance sessions.

An authentic recreation of Pinkster takes place for one day in May each year at Philipsburg Manor, which was once a Colonial-era milling and trading complex. At the Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York, there is music, dance, food, and sports activities plus African folktale presentations and demonstrations of traditional African instruments.

A Pinkster carnival is also held annually at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn, New York. The one-day event in June includes African-inspired music and dance and sports competitions.

Contacts and Web Sites

Philipsburg Manor Route 9 Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591 914-631-3992; fax: 914-631-7740

Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum 5816 Clarendon Rd. Brooklyn, NY 11203 718-629-5400; fax: 718-629-3125

Further Reading

Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. White, Shane. "Pinkster: Afro-Dutch Syncretization in New York City and the Hudson Valley." Journal of American Folklore, January-March 1989. Williams-Myers, Albert James. Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African- American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century . Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007


Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: May
Where Celebrated: Sleepy Hollow, New York
Symbols and Customs: Dancing, Drumming, Games, Pinkster King
Related Holidays: Pentecost


Pinkster was originally celebrated by seventeenth century Dutch immigrants who settled in New Jersey and in the Hudson Valley and western Long Island in New York. Historically celebrated in May or early June, Pinkster roughly corresponded with observances of PENTECOST, the Christian commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus's followers after his death and resurrection. The festival name is derived from Pinksteren, which is the Dutch name for Pentecost. Early observances of Pinkster combined the religious significance of Pentecost with secular celebrations of spring and renewal of life.

Unlike most other holidays during the period before the abolition of slavery in the United States, Pinkster was celebrated jointly by enslaved Africans and Dutch slave owners. During Pinkster festivities, Africans and Europeans often gathered together for games, dancing, drinking, and feasting. Many people associate slavery with the South, but in fact there were more than 32,700 slaves in New York and New Jersey by the late 1700s. Slaves were normally given time off during Pinkster, and many were allowed to travel to visit family and friends during the holiday. For this reason, Pinkster became the most important holiday of the year for many slaves. Pinkster celebrations were most popular between 1790 and 1810, particularly around Albany, New York. By this time, the holiday had grown to a four-day celebration combining Dutch traditions and African slave customs. Preparations began weeks before the festival as tents and shelters were erected on Pinkster Hill-now the site of the New York State Capitol-where most of the Pinkster festivities took place.

Gradually, however, Dutch participation tapered off and Pinkster became an increasingly African-American holiday. As observances became more exclusively African, slaves used the occasion to subtly ridicule European culture by creating caricatures of European fashion, behavior, and customs. This was done through speeches, storytelling, and the crowning of the Pinkster King. Over time the Dutch objected to the slaves' observance of Pinkster, and the celebrations were made illegal in 1811.

Each year in May, an authentic recreation of a Pinkster celebration takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The event is held at Philipsburg Manor, a historic Colonial-era milling and trading complex that was originally owned by Dutch immigrants and worked by twenty-three African slaves. Traditional DANCING , DRUM MING , GAMES , and food are featured along with the election of the Pinkster King, storytelling, and living history demonstrations drawn from more than 100 years of Pinkster celebrations held in the Hudson Valley area. A smaller event takes place for one day in June in Brooklyn, New York. There, a carnival is held at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Manor, and it includes African-inspired music and dance, plus sports competitions.



Dance was an important part of the original Pinkster celebrations. Dutch settlers preferred the organized European-style dances of the Colonial period, while slaves created improvised dances with steps that combined certain European elements with traditional African movements. Early African-American dances such as the jig, the double shuffle, and the breakdown are thought to have originated with Pinkster. Modern tap and break dancing are thought to have evolved from these early African-American forms of dance.


As with other early African-American celebrations, drumming played a critical role in celebrations of Pinkster. Intense dancing, drumming, and chanting sessions were common and often went on for many hours. Drummers who were able to perform for hours on end were highly respected for their stamina.


Dutch and African games were popular features of the original Pinkster celebrations. Children played a bowling game called ninepins and participated in stiltwalking competitions. People of all ages joined in European-style country dancing and egg-dyeing.

Pinkster King

One of the most important aspects of Pinkster was the crowning of the Pinkster King. During the height of Pinkster celebrations, this position was held every year by a well-known and highly respected slave named King Charles. Upon his arrival in Albany, King Charles conducted a procession through the town and up Pinkster Hill, where he presided over a royal ceremony. King Charles was also responsible for conducting the Pinkster celebrations, including regulation of the dancing and drumming sessions.


Abraham, Roger D. Singing the Master. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Gay, Kathlyn. African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Palmer, Colin, ed. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Williams-Myers, Albert James. Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African- American Presence in the Hudson River Valley in the Early Twentieth Century. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994.


Historic Hudson Valley
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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