The Bahamas: Junkanoo

If you’re looking to visit the Bahamas and really experience the culture, you’ll want to attend a Junkanoo. A Junkanoo is a Bahamian traditional parade that celebrates the country’s culture and art with colorful costumes, rhythmic dancing and cowbells, drums and whistles accompanying.

The parade occurs on December 26th, Boxing Day, and on New Year’s Day. The most popular parade is held on Nassau Island but others also occur on Grand Bahama Island, Eleuthera/Harbour Island, Bimini, and The Abacos.

If you can’t arrange a trip during the winter holiday season then shoot for the Junkanoo Summer Festival which runs from early June through late July. This festival occurs on the above names islands as well and features the incredible parade as well as some additional cultural activities.

Although the parade is similar to Mardi Gras its origin is unknown. Some people believe the name Junkanoo is from the French term gens inconnus, which loosely translates to the unknown people and refers to wearing costumes. Others believe the term comes from John Canoe, an African tribal chief who demanded the right to celebrate with his people even after they were enslaved in the West Indies.

It is known that the Junkanoo tradition has a West Indies history and Bermuda and Jamaica have similar practices.

During the 16th and 17th century Bahamian slaves were given some time off around Christmas and they celebrated with dance, music, and costumes. The costumes were an integral part as they allowed participants to parade around anonymously.

As the atmosphere of the Junkanoo evolved so too did the costumes. Initially celebrants wore grotesque masks and walked around on stilts, both disguising their appearance and height. Throughout the years the grotesque nature evolved and the celebration embraced nature, making costumes out of sea sponges and leaves. It further evolved to fabric and shredded paper.

Not surprisingly, after slavery was abolished in the West Indies the Junkanoo almost disappeared, as the participants no longer felt the need to wear disguises to celebrate. For a while very few islanders kept the tradition alive, but now it’s flourishing as a cultural celebration and a tourist attraction. Current parade-goers wear elaborate costumes made mainly of crepe paper on wooden or cardboard frames. They can spend an entire year working on an elaborate costume, designed to portray exactly the right theme. Each theme is a closely guarded secret and isn’t revealed until the parade. Having just the right costume is all worth it because if it is selected by the judges it earns a place of honor in the Junkanoo Museum.

A visit to the Bahamas is just another trip to an island without some sort of Junkanoo experience and insight into the history and culture of the Bahamian natives.

Creative Commons License Photo credit: DeusXFlorida