Frosty Meets John Canoe
January 1, 2004
The village of New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, is a most unlikely place to encounter Frosty the snowman. But there he was, in front of Laura's restaurant, seven feet tall and smiling away despite the 80 degree heat. We passed him and several Santa Claus clones today as we made our way through the town's constricted streets. An overweight elf in a fur-trimmed red suit surrounded by orange trees and coconut palms didn't seem quite right. He should have at least been wearing sunglasses and cut-offs.
Of course, Frosty and Santa are popular figures throughout the world at this time of the year, clear evidence of how globally dominant North American culture has become. While Bahamians have adopted these foreign festive trappings, they also celebrate a holiday tradition that is uniquely their own: "Junkanoo". Junkanoo has its roots in 17th century Bahamian slave society. The name itself is thought to be a corruption of "John Canoe", a folk hero of uncertain origins; some accounts claim he was an African king, others say he was a popular slave leader. Junkanoo is actually celebrated on two different days: Boxing Day (December 26) and New Years day. Historically, these were the only two times of the year that slaves in the Bahamas had the day off. In many ways, the festival is similar to Carnival as practised in several West Indian countries (and other countries with a strong Lenten tradition); it focuses on costumes, parades, and a lot of noise.
The biggest Junkanoo celebrations occur in Nassau, where two-thirds of the population of the Bahamas resides. The partying begins around 3 AM and intensifies as dawn approaches. In the more sparsely populated and languid Abacos island group, where we're currently situated, Junkanoo happens in the afternoon (a welcome concession for those of us who enjoy sleeping) and is shared between two of the main communities: the Boxing Day festival is held in Marsh Harbour and Green Turtle hosts the New Year's celebration. Junkanoo is just too much excitement for a single settlement to handle alone.
We arrived at Green Turtle on Tuesday to find the main anchorage in White Sound, at the northwest end of the island, full of other cruising boats. Despite favourable conditions to travel further south down the island chain, most cruisers were planning to stay for Junkanoo before moving on. This morning all manner of private boats started arriving from the "mainland", crowded with revellers from Fox Town, Coopers Town, and other nearby settlements. (The "mainland" is Great Abaco Island, the largest island in the group, a couple of miles across the Sea of Abaco from Green Turtle; in a nation comprising literally hundreds of islands, everything is relative.) The inter-island ferries were also packed, bringing people from Marsh Harbour and beyond. By noon when we arrived in town in our dinghy, the streets were lined with expectant spectators. In a few hours the island's population (normally around 400) had tripled.
At Junkanoo, the active participants dress up in colourful costumes, make noise, and dance as they parade through the centre of town. The spectators consume refreshments bought at roadside stands, cheer on the dancers, and then follow in their wake, forming a boisterous river of bouncing bodies meandering through the narrow, crooked streets. The costumes are African-influenced: startling masks, tall hats, brightly-hued skirts, and garish face paint. The musical instruments of choice are whistles, drums, and - inexplicably - cowbells (we have yet to see a herd of cattle in the Bahamas). The beat is loud and uncomplicated, and the choreography is pretty loose; the main idea is to shake, sway and twirl a lot.
Today we were entertained by two parades. Perhaps to lessen the chances of smaller people being trampled, there was a separate kids parade at the beginning. The full-blown adult parade followed on its heels. It was impossible to resist the exuberant activity and unrelenting rhythms. We cheered, we bounced, we laughed. And as we shuffled past Frosty, David said, "Sorry, big guy, but you're no match for John Canoe."