Revelers Revive the African-American Holiday of Jonkonnu

December 16, 2005

For a few nights each December, revelers dressed in furs and rags lend a festive air to New Bern, North Carolina, as they celebrate the African- American holiday of Jonkonnu.

Jonkonnu is a festival with roots in Caribbean, West African, and English traditions, originally celebrated in the U.S. by African Americans in the 19th century.

Traditionally, revelers celebrated by singing and dancing to the beats of a drum called a gumba box. The dancers paraded from house to house and collected coins—usually from white slave-owners.

At the end of the performance, a costumed ragman—the leader of the revelers—shook hands with the slaves' master.

"That might not seem significant in the 21st century, but it was very significant within slave-owning society," said Simon Spalding, a musician and historian who re-created Jonkonnu for the annual Christmas celebrations in New Bern.

"I think it functioned as a sort of safety valve to let enslaved people of the 19th century let off a little steam," he added.

New Bern's celebration takes place at Tryon Palace, the first permanent capitol building of the North Carolina colony.

The original building burned in 1798. Today the replica rebuilt on the site serves as an educational center to teach visitors about colonial North Carolina.

Re-created Celebration

Spalding spearheaded the re-creation of Jonkonnu when he managed Tryon Palace's living history programs from 1998 to 2003.

He wanted the Christmas program to reflect the entire population of colonial New Bern, which was about half African-American.

"I think to really interpret history you have to look for [things relevant to] all the people living in the area," he said. "And here's this festival that stands out as a significant part of the local African-American holiday tradition."

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