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Marsh Harbour held its ninth annual Christmas Festival on December 8th. Very popular with the locals, yet I couldn’t help but wonder where the tourists and fellow cruisers were – I could probably count on one hand the number of people who weren’t residents of the Abacos. I also don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcome anywhere as an outsider, as I did here.
The setup felt like your normal Christmas festival with booths of handmade crafts, food, toys and games for the kids and alcohol for the adults. Various musical acts helped me pass the time as I awaited the Junkanoo parade, the final event of the night starting at close to 11pm. More on Junkanoo history later.
One of the more popular spots was with Kirk, “Da Conch Man”, and his conch salad. He labored away all day and night trying to keep up with the demand for his salad. He was furiously dicing onions, green bell peppers, cucumbers, and juicing limes while his two employees got dirty extracting conch from their shells and cutting them up into bite-sized pieces (yes, it’s served raw). I’ve never been much of a raw fish fan, but I had to try it. The flavor was amazing and had quite a kick to it also.
My warmup introduction to Junkanoo was the drumming & belling competition, where youngsters not quite old enough to participate in the Junkanoo parade show off what they’ve been practicing, by putting on their best drum or cowbell performance for a period of one minute. Given a drum or a cowbell, these young kids can sure make some noise and have the rhythm to make it sound good.
The Junkanoo parade at the end of the night was on a very small scale, with only three groups participating, but it’s made me curious about seeking out other larger parades for the actual holiday of Junkanoo that follows Christmas Day. Junkanoo is almost like Mardi-Gras or Carnival, but without the excessive alcohol and drunken shenanigans.
The history of Junkanoo in the Bahamas is contested and all sources I found on the subject only agree on that fact. No one knows how it really started.
What most historians can agree on is that it started around the turn of the 18th century by Loyalists’ African slaves. One version of the history claims that a man named John Canoe advocated for a holiday specifically for the slaves to celebrate between Christmas and New Years, and Junkanoo was born. Other versions follow something similar, that slaves were celebrating their African roots while Christians were celebrating Christmas.
Vivid costumes, cowbells, whistles, and goatskin drums overwhelm anyone close by. “Junkanoo groups” compete for prizes by having the best costumes and best music. The Bahamian government even subsidizes these groups, recognizing them as culturally and historically significant.
These festivities have come a long way from when they were outlawed in the late 19th century and again in the early 1940s. Opponents cited the noise, riots that sometimes broke out, and also the sacrilege of having such a festival on Christmas Day (the holiday was later officially moved to Dec 26th). The prizes and recognition of “official” Junkanoo groups helped bring order to the festivities, and also to bring tourists – business – to the islands.
The local Bahamian beer, Kalik, was even named after the familiar sound that the cowbells make during the festivities.