I first visited the Anacostia Community Museum in the summer of 2009, when this off-the-Mall Smithsonian put on the Jubilee: African American Celebration exhibit. As someone who loves holidays, I naturally wanted to see this exhibit all about holidays and other celebratory occasions.
The exhibit wound around the small museum, providing a glimpse into a calendar year of observances from January through December. It may have been summer when I visited, but I best remember the events that take place during the so-called holiday season: Christmas, Kwanzaa, Watch Night (New Year’s Eve), and John Canoe.
In a booklet from the exhibit, the page on John Canoe notes that this historical holiday in North Carolina is celebrated in modern times outside the United States: “It is similar in form and practice to a celebration found in the Caribbean, also called Junkanoo, which survived long after the U.S. version of the holiday ended.”
The particular object on display to represent John Canoe was a full-size lithograph from 1837 by Isaac Mendes Belisario, entitled “Jaw-bone, or House John Canoe,” showing a person dressed in bright colors and holding a house replica on top of the head. This house character is one of several that would be featured in the John Canoe parades. Others, also drawn by Belisario and seen illustrating this article by M.E. Lasseter on the University of North Carolina’s website, include Actor-Boy, Set Girls, and Jack in the Green.
Lasseter writes, “The bulk of scholarship about the practice comes from the Caribbean, and presents the practice itself as a Caribbean phenomenon, deriving from masking traditions in both European colonizing powers (primarily England and France) and in West Africa” and notes that these Caribbean celebrations take place between Christmas and New Year’s. Similarly, the Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibit brochure states that the “songs and music, danc[ing] and parad[ing]” in North Carolina lasted “sometimes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day.” Although the exhibit is no longer on display, those interested in learning more can begin with Lasseter’s article.
With 2016 almost behind us (good riddance!), happy New Year however you are celebrating!