Published: 12-12-2012, 04:33

Jonkonnu in the United States


Jonkonnu in Jamaica

Jonkonnu in the Caribbean

During slavery times American blacks in North Carolina also carried out the Jonkonnu ritual at Christmas time. They called the custom “John Kooner” and spoke of going “John Canoeing” or “John Kunering” on Christmas morning. Like their Caribbean counterparts, most participants in American Jonkonnu celebrations were men. They prepared homemade costumes embellished with strips of colorful cloth and also wore masks, some of which sported horns. Thus garbed, and armed with simple musical instruments such as drums, triangles, violins, and jew’s harps, they made their way across town. The masqueraders stopped at the houses of the well-to-do, sang and danced for the occupants, and asked for money in return. They also entertained the people they met on their way. Some reports depict plantation slaves celebrating Jonkonnu on the grounds of the estate. The plantation owners enjoyed the music, dancing, and masquerading, and often rewarded the participants with small gifts, such as coins or scarves. Some slaveowners convinced themselves that the happiness the slaves enjoyed during this yearly festival justified the institution of slavery.

The nineteenth-century American version of Jonkonnu strongly resembles the Christmas mumming practices common in England at the time. Nevertheless, the custom probably arrived in the United States via Jamaica and the Bahamas. In past centuries, much trade from these areas entered the United States through the port town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Caribbean slaves familiar with Jonkonnu probably passed the custom on to American blacks via this trade route. After the Civil War African Americans began to abandon Jonkonnu. Oddly enough, as the tradition declined among African Americans, white youths began to adopt it. They called the seasonal masquerade “coonering” and kept it going from the 1890s until it finally died out in the early 1900s. (See also Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America.)