Historically, Christmas was the only free time the slaves had in which to enjoy themselves, free from work and Massa's domination - usually for three precious days. In the sugar islands of the Caribbean, although there are significant similarities stemming from common African heritage and European influences, different ways of jollification' sprung up and were maintained after slavery was abolished.
In Jamaica, up to the fifties and sixties, at Christmastime masked Jonkunnu bands could be seen roaming the streets of towns all over the country playing their lively music, dancing and prancing to entertain the crowds which would invariably be drawn, as a prelude to collecting money. Although a few straggling groups may still come out in the rural areas, sadly, Jonkunnu bands no longer roam the streets of our towns and they are now seen mainly as entertainment at cultural events. Today's children are missing out on the heady feeling which a Jonkunnu band could add to the already magical Christmas season.
Jonkunnu, ( sometimes spelt Johnkonnu ) or John Canoe originated during slavery when the slaves made the best use of the free period to entertain themselves by forming bands and dressing up in various costumes. Along with a music band usually made up of gumbay drums, banjo, grater and fife they would roam the land entertaining both Great House and slave quarters and gaining some small payment for their trouble- money, food or liquor.
Some of the original bands in the eighteenth century, judging from the Belasario prints in the National Library of Jamaica, appear to have been quite elaborate with Set Girls prettily arrayed in stylish red and blue costumes, (these did not parade on the streets but entertained in houses) Ko-Ko or Actor Boys reciting garbled Shakespeare and other theatrical pieces, and House or Jawbone Jonkonnu who carried the replica of a Great House on his head. As with our language and other cultural forms the masquerade was a mixture of European and African influences.
In later days, when I knew Jonkunnu, the masquerade had evolved into well known if less elaborately dressed figures. The basic characters were the horned Cow Head, Horse Head, Policeman, Wild Indian, Bellywoman, Devil, Pitchy-patchy and perhaps a Bride. Tinsel and mirrors helped to give shine to costumes which often varied according to the area of origin. However, the characters in the band all wore mesh masks with faces painted on and each character had a special role and sometimes a special dance. Bellywoman's dance always created laughter as she spun her exaggerated pregnant belly in time with the music of the band. The costumes were colourful, even Devil who, although dressed in black, had red decorations here and there, and Pitchy-patchy, as his name suggests, wore a costume made up of very colourful strips of cloth sewn in tiers. Pitchy-patchy was a pretty sight, a restless character, twirling and leaping and dancing everywhere.
Props included Cowhead's whip, Policeman's baton, Bellywoman's very prominent pregnant belly and Devil's trident. Characters would interact with one another, example the policeman trying to keep order in the band, as well as with their audience. The music of the drums and fife was very compelling and onlookers could hardly refrain from dancing in the streets as the band went by. Sometimes they would sing a very repetitive song.
The cry "Jonkunnu a come!' or the music heralding their approach always created excitement as people poured out of their houses to line the street to watch the masqueraders dancing, cavorting, entertaining before passing a container around for contributions. Children, big and small, and even adults would run away screaming as Devil jabbed at them with his fork, Horsehead snapped at their heels or Cowhead tried to butt those in his path. Of course, both drums and players would be 'sweetened' with white rum.
Many of the female roles like the bride were mostly played by men wearing wigs and other female paraphernalia. I remember an amusing incident in the 60's in a rural area when an older man, drunk with too much Christmas fare and drink tried to solicit one of the 'women' in a passing band. He got immediately sober when his hand encountered body parts that belied the manner of dress. He spent the rest of the day in a corner babbling: 'I thought she was a woman.'
Other Caribbean countries have still vibrant Jonkunnu celebrations, notably The Bahamas and Belize. For an academic discussion of Jonkonnu in Jamaica see articles in the Jamaica Journal available from the National Library in Jamaica.
There are other colourful Christmas celebrations in the Caribbean as each island seems to have its own traditional way of celebrating the season. Recently, I came across a booklet " Christmas Sports in St. Kitts and Nevis" - subtitled; Our Neglected Cultural Tradition - written by Frank Mills, S.B.Jones- Hendrickson with Lessons by Bertram Eugene. The introduction in this interesting little booklet tells us: "It was great fun to be chased by the bull -once there were seven, all in flaming red costumes and some even with red-tipped horns on their heads - or be smashed in the head with Bad Crook's wad of cardboard, or even to observe the Mummies from a safe distance as the 'Fatho' repeatedly struck the Giant, with his eight-foot 'hunter' or cattle-skin whip." Variations on the same themes?
It is truly regrettable that, despite attempts to revive these customs from time to time, so much is being lost. A common problem seems to be their origins as entertainment for and by the slaves and their descendants- today's working class- and as such the activities are frowned on by those who would rather not relate to 'those people'. Also, certainly in Jamaica, the cost of producing a band and the absence of sponsors are additional reasons for their demise. Maybe, too, it is simply that in earlier times, without television, people were more receptive of this kind of street entertainment. It would be interesting to start a memory lane of traditional Christmas entertainment throughout the islands of the Caribbean.
Written by Hazel D Williams