Every year over the winter holiday season, my family and I enjoy taking a cruise to the Caribbean. Often we have found ourselves visiting the Bahamas where we have heard tales and have seen remnants of a festival called Junkanoo. Unfortunately, we always seem to miss the festival because it takes place early in the morning on December 26th. This year due to the weather, our cruise ship ended up in Nassau from the middle of Christmas Day through December 26th. As soon as our plans changed, I quickly realized that finally experiencing Junkanoo would be a real possibility.
Junkanoo is a unique Boxing Day celebration of indigenous dance and music held every year in the Bahamas on December 26th. The largest celebration takes place in downtown Nassau and officially begins with a parade at 1 AM in the morning. Grandstands for viewing the festivities and a judging area are set up in the center of town on Bay Street. I have never attended Carnival in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but it seemed to me that the colors, sights, sounds, and celebratory atmosphere of Junkanoo are probably similar. There are many places to get local food and the atmosphere on the street is one of a large party.
The costumed revelers, in organized groups called “shacks,” parade through downtown Nassau in a slow, rhythmic dance called “rushing.” They intensely compete for prizes for best performance, costume, dancing and music. Each group chooses their own theme and the group members dress in elaborate, colorful costumes that feature exotic designs, vibrant colors, beads, foils, rhinestones, and unique, original decorations. Some marchers play instruments and other carry props. The parade also features enormous floats that are often carried by one person and can weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kg). Parade viewers support their favorite groups by blowing whistles, blasting horns, ringing cowbells, and beating drums. The entire parade is a continual banquet of colors, exotic images, drum beats, and wonderful island sounds. It is an intense delight for the senses.
A group of family and friends from our cruise ship headed out to the parade at 1 AM. Unfortunately, once we were on the street, we found out that the first parade groups would not reach the center of town until around 3 AM. All of us headed back to the ship. By 3 AM, only my wife and I were up to the early morning challenge of experiencing Junkanoo. It took a while for us to figure out where we could see the parade, since we were not able to get much reliable information during the day. We eventually found a vantage point along Bay Street. The sounds were wonderful. The mix of drum beats, horns, whistles, and bells was intoxicating. Dancers moved and swayed while the crowd cheered on their every move. As the groups progressed, the rhythmic sounds grew more intense and we became caught up the joy of it.
Junkanoo is a long parade and some groups were more impressive than others. The largest groups have up to 1000 revelers. Some of our favorites were the Valley Boys, the Saxons, and One Family. We even heard from people on the street that the Prime Minister of the Bahamas was marching in costume with the Valley Boys.
If you have the opportunity to see Junkanoo, I have a few suggestions to make your visit more enjoyable. The posted times for the festival suggest that it begins at 1 AM on December 26th. In actuality, the first group does not appear until around 3 AM. There are places to view the parade from the street, but you will see much more if you purchase a grandstand seat. There is a ticket office on the west end of the Nassau cruise port terminal. The parade usually finishes around 10 AM in the morning. It is entirely possible to view much of the parade in the early daylight hours, but there is something magical about seeing it late at night under the lights. The sequins and bright colors of the costumes seem more enchanting under the night lights. The parade goes on for a long time and there are significant gaps of time between the performances of each group. If you decide to watch from the street, the best free viewing areas are on East Bay Street. If you are on a cruise ship and you arrive early to Nassau on the December 26th, you can still catch a few hours of the parade since it often lasts until 10 AM. If you miss Junkanoo on December 26th, the parade is repeated in the early morning hours of January 1st. Another option is the competitive junior Junkanoo parade featuring primary and secondary school students that is usually held in the evening a week prior to the Boxing Day celebration. There is even a summer Junkanoo celebration held on Grand Bahama Island at Taino Beach from mid-July to mid-August.
If you have the opportunity to see Junkanoo, don’t pass it up. It is a sensory explosion of Caribbean sights and sounds that will give you an incredible appreciation of the culture of the Bahamas. Bring a whistle and cowbell and join the crowds on the street.