Jamaican Christmas a Come! | Grand Market, Cake, Sorrel, Jonkunnu

Posted by on Dec 22, 2014 in Blog, Jamaican Culture, Jamaican Food | 0 comments

Jamaican Christmas a Come! | Grand Market, Cake, Sorrel, Jonkunnu
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Jamaican Christmas Traditions

What I enjoy most about Christmas - in Jamaica and at home - are the unique traditions in our cultures and histories that make us who we are, and that celebrate the things the season represents - family, faith, community, generosity and love. Jamaican Christmas traditions celebrate all of these things, but you'll have to look beyond the obvious!

If you're visiting Jamaica during the holidays, you'll probably find that today's Jamaican Christmas is nearly as commercialized as Christmas in the U.S., Canada and Europe. If you manage to escape from the all-inclusive resorts, however, don't expect to see as many Christmas lights, artificial snow, trees and other decorations as you might see at home. But be ready to eat, drink and be merry!

Jamaicans are predominately Christians, so the Christmas holidays are special. Many Jamaican Christmas traditions have British colonial influences, as well as African, Indian, Spanish, and other cultural influences that have given the nation its rich diversity. Some traditions, like Jonkonnu, have faded, but you may still see a performance here and there.

Here are a few a few things to look for and a little about the history/origins of each.

(Click on the numbered sections at the bottom to continue. You will see this introduction on every page, so please scroll down the page to keep reading!)

I wish you a Happy Jamaican Christmas!



By award-winning Jamaican artist Gaston Tabois – John Canoe in Guanaboa Vale (1962)
Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

Today, you probably won't see much of this Jamaican Christmas-time tradition which has a history dating back hundreds of years. But Jonkonnu is still an important part of Jamaica’s rich culture, history and tradition, and you may be lucky enough to enjoy a performance by this merry band of masqueraders if you visit Jamaica during the holidays, especially in villages and rural areas.

Jonkonnu, sometimes spelled Jonkunnu, Jonkanoo, Junkanoo, Jankunu, and called John Canoe by the British, seems to be a unique blend of African mime and European folk theater. It originated as an artistic and social outlet for slaves, allowing them to dance, sing, party and satirize their masters and society. Jonkonnu is traditionally performed during the Christmas holidays.

Accompanied by a band composed of fife, drums, shakas and a coconut grater used as a scraper, performers dress in bright, elaborate and colorful costumes. They tell a story as they sing and dance, acting out specific characters.

Because the costumes are often frightening, spectators (especially little children) scream and run off as the performers playfully attackd the crowd with their whips, pitchforks or horns. But it's all done with fun and laughter.

CAST OF CHARACTERS: Mask-wearing men play a variety of parts in a motley cast of comical, and sometimes scary, characters that served as symbols for social commentary, including:

Pitchy Patchy Jamaican Jonkonnu

Jamaican Jonkonnu character - Pitchy-Patchy

Pitchy-Patchy - Covered in tattered strips of colorful cloth, Pitchy-Patchy typically turns cartwheels and circles along his path. He is a clever troublemaker who is said to represent the resourcefulness of the slaves, who used their scarce supplies to create something splendid. The origin of the costume is thought to be African and was probably originally made from layers of straw and palm fronds.

Amerindian (or Wild Indian) - This character wears an elaborate feathered headdress. The performer traditionally wears fringed pants, shirt, and a long, black rope braid attached to the headdress. In modern-day Jamaica, Amerindian's costume is dressed up with mirrors, wrapping paper and cutouts from magazines.

Cow Head - Cow Head has a mask, a tail, and two real horns on his head, usually attached to half of a calabash gourd. He aggressively charges at the spectators to keep them at bay. Cow Head (and a character called Horse Head) are thought to represent power, and they are central characters of any Jonkonnu parade. He moves in bucking motions and is usually bent low to the ground. Cow Head may also be influenced by the popular Rolling Calf legend, the Jamaican version of the boogeyman.

Koo Koo (or Actor Boy) - This character first appeared in Jonkonnu parades in the early 1800s. He wears a European-style tiered skirt and frock coat, but also has an elaborate feathered headdress. The name "koo koo" is said to come from the name of a West African dish, but the character also danced about quoting Shakespeare (thus the name "Actor Boy").

Belly Woman - This character is an enormously pregnant woman with an exaggerated chest and backside. She gyrates in time with the rhythm of the music, showing off her curves. Belly Woman is most likely a representation of fertility, although she is sometimes considered to be portraying a negative image of mulatto women.

House Head - House Head was usually a central Jonkonnu character. He wore a large headdress in the shape of a great house.

Police Man -This Police Man tries to keep spectators in order but, as he tries to enforce the law, he gets caught up in the rhythm of the drums and joins in the merriment. His presence may date back to 1841, when the mayor of Kingston outlawed Jonkonnu parades in the city due to frequent clashes between revelers and the police. (Rural areas were excluded from the ban.)

The Royal Court - No Jonkonnu parade would be complete without the Royal Family, particularly the King and Queen. This was a way for slaves to openly mock the aristocracy and plantocracy without fear of retaliation.

Other common Jonkonnu characters include The Devil (a menacing character dressed in black who taunts onlookers with his pitchfork), Jack In the Green, Houseboat, The Sailor, Bride, Cob Web Cleaner, and Bush Doctor.

Throughout history, costumes varied by area. "Roots" Jonkonnu bands had more rustic costumes, while bands from the parishes of St. Elizabeth, Westmoreland and Hanover were more "fancy."


HOW THE TRADITION STARTED: Jonkonnu is often called the Jamaica Slave Dance. Most researchers agree that its origins are African, and that the festival was very important in the lives of enslaved people in several parts of the Americas. But others believe it may be an entirely unique Creole tradition born in the New World from African and European influences.

Historical evidence suggests that Jonkonnu originated in Jamaica during the 1700s. From there, it spread to other English‐speaking colonies where slavery was entrenched, including British Honduras (now known as Belize) and other parts of Central America, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and the Bahamas. It has gone through many changes over the years, and has developed local differences from place to place.

Jamaica's Jonkonnu may have been influenced by several West African festivals: the Mmo yam festival of the Igbo peoples, the Homowo yam festival of the Ga people, or the Yoruba Egungun masquerades.


John Canoe (Jonkonnu, JonKanoo) Costume, Koo Koo (or Actor Boy), Jamaica, 1838; Image Reference Belisario08, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

In England since Medieval times, masters allowed their servants some freedom during the holidays to blow off steam. It's likely the English planters in Jamaica followd suit, allowing their slaves to sing, dance and eat as they wished, free from work for a short time. Christmas in Jamaica before emancipation was one of the few periods in the year when slaves could enjoy themselves, primarily on Christmas Day, New Years Day and Boxing Day.

Jonkonnu became even more popular when plantation owners started to encourage the festivities by providing money and fabric for costumes to show off the wealth of their estates. As you can see from this old illustration from Kingston, Jamaica in 1838, the costumes were quite different then.

Today, much of the Jonkonnu custom has been lost to time. But Jonkonnu troupes still exist throughout the island, and you may catch a performance during Christmastime, at Easter, and at other special events such as Independence Day, especially in the country.



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