Junkanoo is mixture of tradition and new age Bahamian stories that “rush” during the morning hours of Nassau on Boxing Day and New Years. This rhythmic and boisterous festival has been celebrated for decades and lightens the Yuletide time of year for Bahamians and visitors, not just because of the costumes, but because Junkanoo is synonymous with the season.
There are many different myths of how the Junkanoo festival came to be. Some say that a man named John Canoe, an African prince who outwitted the English Loyalists, established the festival. Another story states that the festival is derived from the French word “L’inconnu”, meaning unknown. This refers to the dancers and music makers that wore masks during the festival in the early years of the tradition.
Junkanoo originated in the 17th century in the Bahamas, when slaves had three days off for the holidays. They would make costumes and perform down the streets of Nassau as an expression of freedom. Originally the performers would cover their face with flour paste, which quickly was replaced with wired masks and then with cardboard headpieces. Seen below is the development and themes of Junkanoo throughout the years.
1780s: Most of the African population arrives to The Bahamas as slaves of the Loyalists; this is when the tradition started.
1834: Abolition of Slavery under the British Rule did not eliminate the tradition of Junkanoo, but grows the amount of people that rush with the flood of freed slaves to the islands.
1920s: Costume themes included sponges because of the business it brought to the Bahamas.
1930s: Fringed crepe paper was used to decorate costumes, instead of scrap paper.
1960s: Women were allowed to participate in the parade, mostly in the dancing sections.
Today Junkanoo is a celebration of national pride that Bahamians look forward to all year. The “rush-out” starts around 2AM and runs until 10AM that same morning. The magic of the darkness of the sky contrasts with the bright, colorful costumes, upbeat rhythm of the music, and energy of the performers. Under the streetlights of Bay Street the different groups dance through the morning in front of excited and dancing locals until they get to Rawson Square to be judged.
The six major Junkanoo groups: Saxons, Roots, One Family, Valley Boys, Colours and Music Makers will win most of the prizes, but there are also smaller groups, called “Scrap Groups” that fill the gaps in between. Each group prepares for months practicing their dance routines and music, and making the costumes and floats. The designs, themes and performances are the biggest secrets, not only in the Junkanoo community, but to the public as well, as they want the big reveal to be under the lights at 4AM on Boxing Day.
Vintage Photos by: oldbahamas.com
Photos by: Emily Morley