By Aesha Duval (Follow us on LinkedIn)
Starting this week and into the first week of January 2023, the island of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands will be celebrating its 70th Anniversary of the Crucian Christmas Festival. Although called festival by locals, it is essentially St. Croix’s Carnival and it will be the first one held since 2020, right before the global pandemic struck.
From New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, New York’s West Indian Parade in Brooklyn to the Notting Hill Carnival in London, England, Caribbean people and all celebrants of Carnival across the world have been waiting for the release and revelry that only Carnival can provide. For Crucians (persons who were born or reside on St. Croix are called Crucians), the Christmas Festival will entail weeks of concerts, cultural events, food fairs, pageantry, parades and J’ouvert, pronounced joo-vay, the early morning frolicking street fete that kicks the festivities into high gear.
The big finale of the Festival celebration is the children’s parade and the separate adult’s parade (January 6th and 7th, respectively). Costumes for adult festival troupes were sold out within days, and in some cases, hours after the designs were released. Participating in a festival troupe, or playing mas’, is a lot of fun and a lot of work. I tell folks all the time, once you start playing mas’, you never go back to the sidelines watching the parade.
Mas’(short for masquerade) participants dress in costumes, masks and other disguises to dance through the parade route. These costumes bring an artistic narrative to the heart of Carnival, and carnival-goers are encouraged to join a band/troupe and play Mas’.
Deh mahnin’ come (J’ouvert)
As the sun slowly rose, the streets of Frederiksted, St. Croix, were already filled with throngs of people of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors, and backgrounds for what turned out to be the last J’ouvert before the coronavirus brought the world to a halt. It was just before 7 a.m. on Thursday, January 2, 2020, and I stood along the route with my sisters and niece watching winning revelers as they processed behind flatbed trucks carrying local bands and deejays blasting music emanating from stacks of speakers piled so high, someone on top was tasked with making sure no power lines were snagged.
We didn’t know at the time that it would be three years before we would get to experience this again. But you would not know it from watching the revelers pounding the streets, getting sprayed with water, body paint, powder and whatever they could purchase from the stores along the route. The partiers wined their waists, dancing with reckless abandon and endless energy, as if there was no tomorrow.
I’m not going to lie to you. J’ouvert is not for the faint of heart. Click here for a video of J’ouvert on St. Croix in 2017. The dancing is graphic and considered by some to be pretty raunchy. Some have argued that the young participants in modern day J’ouvert don’t fully understand the origins of the Carnival traditions and why the dance moves are so … expressive.
Origins of Carnival
J’ouvert is French Creole meaning ‘day opened’ or ‘day break.’ In the Caribbean islands, revelers gather in the streets just before sunrise, often covered in mud and body paint, to dance behind trucks piled high with speakers blasting percussion heavy calypso and soca music.
To understand J’ouvert, one must first understand how Carnival began. The origins of the Carnival celebration are rooted in colonialism and religious conversion as Europeans established colonies in the Caribbean region. Today, Carnival is tied to freedom and the emancipation of slavery.
In the mid-1600s and 1700s Europeans from countries such as Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Denmark colonized the islands of the Caribbean. They brought with them the celebrations and festivals they were accustomed to and tried to replicate them in the New World. Those celebrations included religious holidays and occurred in various forms to include dress balls, parties, house to house visits and street processions.
The primary source of labor for the developing plantations were enslaved Africans from West and Central Africa. They too, brought with them the celebrations and festival traditions they were familiar with and tried to replicate them, often with difficulty. African festivals were organized around certain deities or spirits, to mark a transition in life or in the community and in recognition of changes in seasons whether related to climate or to agricultural production. Their festivals incorporated a variety of forms, which included singing or chanting, drumming, masking, and a form of street theater with performer and audience participation.
The enslaved Africans also brought to the Caribbean the knowledge of how to make drums, masks and other instruments using whatever items they could find. In the U.S. Virgin Islands (formerly the Danish West Indies) for example, Africans made drums using a skin stretched over a calabash or a small barrel. The Europeans, however, feared traditional African drumming and dances because they thought these might be used to communicate secretly and to plan uprisings. Drumming was often banned, and other laws and slave codes not only stripped Africans of their humanity, but also their cultural identity. They were often expected to abandon their own traditions and adopt at least part of European culture.
Despite being exposed to European celebrations, the enslaved Africans were not allowed to participate. They were permitted to celebrate religious holidays and despite the ban on their old traditions, they persevered. Reinventing and extracting parts of their African traditions from their collective memories, the enslaved Africans were able to maintain some of their traditions by fitting them into the European festival and holiday framework, often with the plantation owner’s permission, but also in secret. During holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s, enslaved people were given time off and this was their opportunity to celebrate. As momentum of these celebrations grew, a cultural fusion of the traditions of both groups was created.
Music and dance were integral parts of these celebrations during the colonial era in the Caribbean. These traditions continued to evolve over time along with the various times of celebration. While much of the celebrations coincided with Christmas and the pre-lent time period, some occurred around the agricultural cycle, such as the end of the sugar cane harvest. Through these various festivals, the Emancipation of slavery, and the integration of creolized music, masquerading traditions and dances that mocked the antics of their former masters and served as a reminder of the evils of slavery, Carnival was born.
History of St. Croix’s Christmas Festival
The Crucian Christmas Festival became an annual event in 1952 with the revival of old holiday traditions transformed into modern Carnival. From the early-1800s enslaved Africans on St. Croix were allowed to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with drumming, singing, and dancing on the plantations. In the towns, there were parades through the streets, also with singing, dancing, and drums, often stopping door to door for rum and wine. Masquerading was popular during Christmas and these traditions continued into the early 1900s but declined until the revival in the 1950s. Social events kept music traditions and dances like the quadrille and bomboula dancing alive. The Carnival festival collected all these traditions into one big event with a focus on the former holiday celebrations, which makes St. Croix’s Carnival especially unique. Today it lasts about four weeks starting in December and ending with J’ouvert and the parades in January.
Carnival is celebrated across the Caribbean and many parts of the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean diaspora. Like the Virgin Islands, other Caribbean islands saw a revival of the festival traditions in the early to mid-1900s, often incorporating festival elements from neighboring islands. It has become more than a modern festival with remnants of contributing European and African traditions. It is something entirely different and uniquely Caribbean.
For more than a century, J’ouvert processions have marked the opening of Carnival in Trinidad, wrote author Ray Allen in an article titled, J’ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival: Revitalizing Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions. “Held in the predawn hours of Carnival Monday, J’Ouvert evolved from 19th century Canboulay festivals – nighttime celebrations where ex-slaves gathered to masquerade, sing, and dance in commemoration of their emancipation.” Historically, Allen wrote, J’ouvert’s satirical masquerading, coupled with the dense percussion and suggestive music, has created Carnival’s biggest challenge – maintaining order and authority and what Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace termed, the essence of the “Emancipation spirit.”
J’ouvert is so revered in the Caribbean that attempts to trademark the name have been met with fierce opposition by native islanders. In 2021, actor Michael B. Jordan was embroiled in a cultural controversy when he named his rum liquor, J’Ouvert. Caribbean people pushed back hard on social media, accusing the actor of cultural appropriation, and urged him to rethink use of the name. Which he did. Jordan posted an apology and confirmed plans to change the name after “a lot of listening” to the community.
Today, J’ouvert remains the arena for amplified African-derived percussion, sardonic costumes, and expressive dancing. There is a hedonistic and sinister dimension to J’ouvert that makes it uncomfortable for some. Whether it be the historical ties to slavery and colonialism, the explicit music and dancing, the unfortunate debauchery and outbreaks of violence, there are some who avoid participating in or even watching J’ouvert. Despite its dark side, the predominant element of J’ouvert and Carnival that has prevailed since the days of slavery is freedom. In the U.S., Carnival connects transplanted Caribbean people and their American-born children to their native homeland and back in time to their African ancestors who processed through the streets with drums and torches celebrating their emancipation from slavery.
And given the constraints of the last three years, all the family and friends that have been lost to COVID-19, and all the other stressors of today’s world, Carnival has renewed meaning and importance. The spirit of Emancipation and the essence of J’ouvert have the power to transform the Carnival celebration into a stage for the affirmation of freedom and the resilience of the human spirit. Carnival can serve as an inspiration, not only for Afro-Caribbean immigrants, but to anyone who struggles to assert their humanity and self-worth.
Carnival is a rebirth; it re-energizes and honors our African ancestors who persevered in the face of the most horrific and inhumane circumstances. Carnival reconnects us to ourselves. Therefore, it is important to appreciate it, honor it and protect it. This is why Carnival matters.
Allen, R. (1999). J’ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival: Revitalizing Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions. Western Folklore, 58(3/4), 255–277. https://doi.org/10.2307/1500461
Minshall, P. (1999). “To Play Mas.” Caribbean Quarterly, 45(2/3), 30–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40654077
VInow. (2022, December 8) History of Carnival in the U.S. Virgin Islands. https://www.vinow.com/general_usvi/carnival/history/.
(2021, June 23) Actor Michael B. Jordan to rename J’Ouvert rum after Nicki Minaj criticism. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-57581240
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.