Junkanoo: The Bahamas’ Biggest Festival

Man dressed in a colorful costume and playing a brass horn during Junkanoo celebrations in the Bahamas.
People dressed up for Junkanoo Carnival Road Parade 2019.
Junkanoo Carnival Road Parade 2019, W. Bay Street, Nassau, The Bahamas. Photo by Gregory Culmer

The islands of the Bahamas are rich with culture and history, preserving traditions that date back hundreds of years. One of the most renowned, both in the Caribbean and around the world, is the national festival known as “Junkanoo.”

Officially celebrated twice a year, on December 26 (Boxing Day) and January 1 (New Year’s Day), “Junkanoo” is a lovely feast of colors and sound that integrates itself into the fabric of many Bahamian parties and events throughout the year. While its origins are widely debated, there are several prevailing theories.

The first theory is that the festival was named in tribute to John Canoe, who was an African tribal chief. Another theory claims that the word “Junkanoo” was derived from the French term “gens inconnus,” which means “unknown people.” It refers to the masks worn during the festival that virtually obscured the faces of festival-goers. Others believe that “Junkanoo” began as a celebration of slaves on their infrequent days off from work.

The festival includes masquerade parties and parades, full of music from rhythmic instruments like cowbells, whistles, drums, and horns. Bright costumes, intricate masks, and native dance captivate Junkanoo audiences and participants alike.

Man dressed in a colorful costume and playing a brass horn during Junkanoo celebrations in the Bahamas.
Junkanoo celebration participant, The Bahamas

With heavy influences from West African, Caribbean and American cultures, the music infuses heavy drumbeats, blues, and island rhythms, making it obvious why the Bahamas is known as the “Islands of Song.”

Visitors who are unable to attend the festival itself are still in luck. There is a Junkanoo museum in Nassau that features costumes and instruments used throughout the years, as well as interactive experiences for guests of all ages.

The festival has evolved from its humble origins of simple costumes and goatskin horns, but one thing remains constant throughout the years: “Junkanoo” is a glimpse into the very heart and soul of Bahamian culture.