From the sound of the goatskin drums tightened to just the right pitch using only a flame, to the exuberant musicians and dancers that spend a year preparing for the competition, Junkanoo will impress you so deeply that you’ll remember it every time you hear rake-and-scrape or see sequins. This colorful festival encompasses Bahamian culture in every way, from the styles of dance and music to the smell of the street food in the air.
Ring in the new year at this Caribbean festival that’s perfect for all ages!
What is Junkanoo in the Bahamas?
Junkanoo is a cultural festival in the Bahamas traditionally celebrated on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day—imagine something similar to a Carnival Parade in the Caribbean or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but specifically celebrating Bahamian culture. Groups of costumed dancers and musicians parade through the streets between midnight and sunrise, while both locals and tourists line the streets standing in bleachers or balconies to enjoy the celebration.
“Junkanoo is a celebration. Junkanoo represents the spirit of the Bahamian culture, and it is this spirit, once celebrated with the intensity of the parades in all other aspects of our culture, that will provide the leadership for our society in the future. ” — Jackson Burnside III, 2009
If you want to visit the Bahamas during Junkanoo, it’s best to buy your tickets and book your beach hotel well in advance, as it’s quite a popular event. You’ll get to see costume competitions, try delicious snacks from street stalls and get a vibrant glimpse of Bahamian culture—just don’t forget your camera!
History of Junkanoo
Junkanoo’s origins are widely disputed, but most attribute its creation to the few days over Christmas when slaves were given time off to be with family in the 17th century. The name “Junkanoo” is said to come from either the legend of an African prince named John Canoe or the French phrase gens inconnus that translates to “unknown people,” alluding to the masked participants of the celebration.
In Nassau, the Educulture Junkanoo Museum depicts the history of Junkanoo in the former home of devoted Junkanoo celebrator, Arlene Nash Ferguson. She created the museum to honor her Bahamian heritage and share it with others. The exhibits showcase traditional Junkanoo costumes, instruments and more. Plus, the museum is right next to the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, so you can visit both museums in the same day.
Junkanoo Rush Out
Junkanoo Rush Out is when all the teams of costumed dancers and musicians rush the streets performing, often in troupes. This procession fills the streets until dawn all across the Bahamas. Dance troupes prepare for the celebration months in advance, some even garnering sponsorship from companies to help with costs for costumes and floats.
Different Junkanoo troupes comprised of thousands of people compete against one another for large cash prizes and respect in the categories of music, costume and overall performance—the most popular groups being Colours, Music Makers, One Family, Roots, Saxons and Valley Boys—don’t forget to cheer for your favorite!
These troupes parade the streets with traditional instruments like conch-shell horns, goombay drums and cowbells, wearing handcrafted costumes made of cardboard, glitter, feathers and more all held together with glue and contact cement.
With the help of parents, teachers and volunteers, an organized group of children do their own “rush out” during Junior Junkanoo. Children learn about their Bahamian heritage and culture from a young age and participate in the community, while being exposed to music and dance. Many go on to become musicians from the skills discovered in Junior Junkanoo and carry on the celebrations throughout their lifetime.
Junkanoo Summer Festival
Junkanoo has gained so much popularity, it’s now celebrated in summer also, allowing more people to experience the magical rhythms and sights! Every Saturday of July, there’s a rush out on Arawak Cay with decked-out revelers filling the streets, music and dance competitions, delectable food vendors and games for all ages.
Junkanoo Carnival in Spring
Every April and May, Freeport, Grand Bahama and Nassau hold Junkanoo Carnival—a Junkanoo celebration centered around Bahamian music and culture. Both Freeport and Nassau’s Da Cultural Village on Arawak Cay have live musical performances that draw thousands of spectators as musicians compete for hefty cash prizes.
You’ll want to be in Nassau for the largest Junkanoo celebration though taking place on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, when a huge parade dances its way down Bay Street and Shirley Street, ending in Rawson’s Square. Here, the judging takes place for the must-see event, the costume competition, falling on the first night. Buy tickets for the bleachers and private balconies lining these streets, or simply walk around. Since Junkanoo doesn’t begin until the wee hours of the morning, you’ll have plenty of time for Junkanoo World costume store in Nassau for a first-hand look at traditional attire and accessories. And, if you really want to feel apart of the festival, try arriving early and joining a troupe for the parade—many troupe leaders welcome this, and the dance moves are easy to pick up.
While Nassau is the most popular destination in the Bahamas for both vacationing and celebrating Junkanoo, most islands in the Bahamas have vibrant Junkanoo celebrations on New Year’s Day. Grand Bahama, the Abacos, Bimini and the Exumas all celebrate Junkanoo, whether it’s the traditional New Year’s Day festivities or Junkanoo Carnival and Junkanoo Summer Festival in spring and summer.
Junkanoo Food & Drinks
You’ll have no trouble finding a tasty snack or meal during Junkanoo—food stalls line the streets with Bahamian must-trys like conch fritters, fried fish and rum cakes. There’s a strict no-glass policy during Junkanoo so you will not find alcoholic beverages sold in the streets, but you can certainly find them in restaurants lining the parade route.
Junkanoo events are the Bahamas’ biggest celebrations of the year and you’ll need to book accommodations well in advance. Nassau has many beach hotels right by the parade route including Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, Rosewood Baha Mar, SLS Baha Mar and Meliá Nassau Beach – All Inclusive. For accommodations on other islands, check out our Bahamas Hotels page. During your stay, you’ll want to take advantage of the Bahamas’ beautiful beaches and attractions like the Nassau Straw Market and Pearl Island.