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Jamaica - Christmas traditions & customs

Jamaican Christmas festivities reached their height in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with feasts and processions featuring strolling singers and performers. In this century, the celebration came under more regulation so that performers had to be licensed. This has added to a general decline, although all the customs can still be found in various pasts of the island. The women were called "set-girls," because they worked together in a set of a specific number. They danced to the accompaniment of gourd rattles, fifes, triangles, and tambourines. The men were called "actor boys" or " koo-koo boys." They wore masks and elaborate headdress and would sometimes perform plays or skits. The name "koo-koo boys" derived from a song in one of the plays which begged for food. "Koo-koo" was the sound used to imitate the rumbling of an empty stomach.

The most colorful figure in these bright festivities was the "John Canoe" dancer. He wore a mask, a wig, and a military jacket. On his head was a pasteboard houseboat with puppets of sailors, soldiers, or plantation workers. Often this was of great size, and the most skilled dancer had to be chosen to wear it. The name John Canoe is obscure. It may be a corruption of the French gens inconnu, which means "unknown people," or it may come from cornu, "horned," since early dancers wore animal masks.

The origins of all these festivities are lost in antiquity, but they seem to derive equally from African and European customs.


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