"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."
"Jonkonnu" or "John Kunering" at Christmas
Cape Fear Historical Instutute Papers
“The John Kuners were a chief attraction of the Christmas
season since colonial times.”
Dr. James Sprunt
An old Christmas tradition of Wilmington called “John Kunering” is
still remembered, with one similar in Edenton referred to as
“John Canoeing.” This was a tradition practiced mainly by black slaves,
a custom that would find noisy and gaily-dressed processions “singing strange tunes accompanied by banjo, accordian, tamborine and other instruments.” Some of the participants would dress as women, and they festooned themselves with shreds of cloth sewn to their daily attire.
In Wilmington, the “John Kuners” would dance throughout the town to
the rhythmic chants of:
“Hah! Low! Here we go!
Hah! Low! Here we go!
Hah! Low! Here we go! Kuners come from Denby!”
“With the rattles of bones, the blowing of cow’s horns, and the tinkling of tambourines, the singing slaves, grotesque in their “Kuner” costumes, would halt whenever an appreciative crowd gathered. Strips of brightly colored cloth sewn to their clothes fluttered gaily as the John Kuners danced merrily.
They were bedecked in horned masks, beards, staring eyes
and enormous noses with grinning mouths.
All were men, but some would dress as women.
After a few songs and dancing, the Kuners would approach the spectators with hat extended to collect a monetary reward for the antics. The Kuners would then depart for another crowd to dance
and sing for and the usual reward”(Johnson).
Slave Harriet Brent Jacobs described the custom (Cashman, p.51):
"Every child rises on Christmas morning to see the John Kannaus.
Without them Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction...
a box covered with sheepskin is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat
on this while others strike triangles and jawbones to which a band of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs."
"John Kunering" was a way in which blacks, free and slave, would
imitate the Christmas traditions in their own manner, and an opportunity
to parade in gaily-dressed musical groups around the city and request Christmas gifts and treats from white families. The custom fell into disuse
in the 1880’s after being tabooed by black residents, it was seen "as tending to lower them as a race in the eyes of the public (Moore)."
Though usually viewed as a black custom, historians note that the processions was not limited to blacks, as many white youths would
dress and march as well, joining in the Christmas gaiety.
Slaves Granted Liberty at Holidays:
Wilmington historian Louis T. Moore wrote that "At Christmas seasons especially, a greater degree of real liberty was enjoyed by the colored people...and they were permitted to band themselves together in groups and from Christmas Eve through the advent of the New Year, Wilmington verily rang with the chants, songs and merry-making of the John Kuners. As the groups would stop in front of the different handsome homes, or
pass into the gardens and spacious yards of the stately houses, they
would always expect some type of Christmas cheer or gift. Invariably,
the Kuners were fed on the substantial viands and appetizing desserts with which the groaning tables were filled during the Christmas season.”
There was substantial support for granting slaves the freedom to enjoy
time away from their labor, and antebellum North Carolina’s
Chief Justice Ruffin typified this with his view that:
“It would really be a source of regret, if, contrary to common custom, it were denied to slaves, in the intervals between their toils, to indulge in mirthful pastimes…”
Christmas as celebrated by white Wilmingtonians was a quiet and reflective
time with families at home, and author Guion Johnson relates in “Antebellum North Carolina” that:
“Christmas in North Carolina was celebrated without official ceremony, and the town authorities ordinarily made no occasion of the day, “leaving it to quiet church services, visiting parties and pleasant family reunions.” The Wilmington Daily Journal wrote on December 23, 1851: “Christmas is coming…and were it not for the little and big (Negroes) begging for quarters, and the “noise and confusion” and the “Kooners,”…and the fire-crackers, and all the other unnamed horrors and abominations, we should be much inclined to rejoice thereat…” In 1859 the same Journal wrote that “Christmas is past…A crowd on foot preceded by an ox team was quite amusing. John Kuner was feeble. John Barleycorn retained his usual spirit…our town authorities on Christmas generally let the boys have their way so far as mere noise is concerned….much firing of crackers, rockets, sapients, etc…”
It was customary to give slaves considerable freedom on Saturday afternoons, Sundays, and on general holidays such as the 4th of July and Christmas. The old Southern custom of ladies staying indoors
on Saturday afternoons arose from the great numbers of slaves
in town at that time.
Christmas was the time that slaves enjoyed more than others, and it was a general custom to give the workers a rest from the field labors for several days at least, and often the period between Christmas and New Year Day. The masters were liberal in issuing passes so the slaves could visit relatives and former masters on neighboring plantations. The slaves would have more money at this time as masters seldom forgot to give coins and presents on Christmas morning as “the slaves gathered about happily shouting “Chris’mus gif!”
The gifts received were usually gay head-cloths for the women and “hands of tobacco” for the men, plus barbequed pork, molasses and weakened liquor. The Negroes (in Edenton) arose early Christmas morning, singing their John Canoe songs and shouting “Chris’mus gif” at their masters’ doors. With liquor on their breaths and money in their pockets, they spent to day in one long jubilee.”
Antebellum slaves in the South were not alone in having annual celebrations. New York slave owners in the late 1700's permitted their bondsmen several days of recreational release in an event called "Pinkster," a transformation of the Dutch celebration of Pentecost. During "Pinkster, the New York slaves gathered to "make music, dance, and play games."
Another local Wilmington tradition is revealed in
Nicholas Schenck’s diary regarding an antebellum
vacant lot on the north side of Dock Street between
Front and Water Streets, that “was used Christmas holidays
by Negroes to strike at turkeys – suspended on pole –
opposite side of street – paying a small fee – the striker
was blind [folded] – turned around three times [and] given
a street pole – 6 feet long – faced the hanging turkey –
now walk straight ahead – if he killed the turkey or
knock[ed] him down “he won” the turkey.
The Origins and “John Canoeing” in Edenton:
The tradition was known by several names and there is no certainty to the origin of the "John Kuner" custom other that it being possibly misty African tribal memories and chants mixed with European traditions, or derived from French, Provencal or Anglo-Norman minstrels called "Jongleurs," and the name Jonconners," Jonkunnu,” "Jonkonnu," or “Junkanoo” being various corruptions of this. The term"Jonkonnu" is more a Bahamian term (there called Junkanoes) and the spelling in Nassau has been "John Canoe" or John Connu." A more familiar and local identification of the tradition was "John Kuners" or "Kuners," and it is firmly believed that the tradition began in Wilmington.
In January, 1926 Dougald MacMillan of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
wrote an article in the Journal of American Folklore entitled "John Kuner" and noted that his research "traced the custom to only a few other
coastal towns of North Carolina, and to Nassau, where these men
were called “John Canoes.” In Wilmington, the custom apparently died
out in the 1880’s."
It is also reported that the "John Kuner" activities of blacks were in evidence at Somerset Plantation in the Albemarle region, with some participants dressed bizarrely in rags and animal skins. They would
parade to the master's house drumming, chanting and dancing for
money, food and gifts.
If the tradition is a product of coastal North Carolina, “Kunering” was
most likely derived from black experiences in the New World, absorbing the new culture of the West, and imitating the many European traditions they found themselves influenced by. The African influence in “Kunering” cannot be discounted as nearly-forgotten remembrances of tribal dancing may have been at work; and slaves recently brought from Africa on New England slavers certainly would have brought their memories with them. The high point of the New England slave trade was about 1750 as it surpassed Liverpool in prominence as a slave-trading center; and their ships were still being caught in the 1850’s.
The tradition in nearby Edenton, North Carolina was explained by
Dr. James Norcom in 1824 and he credits the white community
for allowing the custom to flourish:
“During the season of Christmas our slaves…have been in the habit of enjoying a state of comparative freedom; of having dances & entertainments among themselves; & of celebrating the season in a manner peculiar to this part of the world. These festivities are not only tolerated by the whites, but are virtually created by them; for without the aid voluntarily contributed by their masters, the servants would
be destitute of the means of making or enjoying them.
At such a season, instead of driving these wretched creatures, with cold and unfeeling sensibility from our doors, the heart of charity dilates towards them, & the angel of humanity whispers in our ears that they are entitled to a part of the blessings which their labor has procured us…Although trifling evils sometimes result from these extraordinary indulgences, they continue to be tolerated and practiced. It is to be regretted that drunkenness is too common on these occasions; but this also is habitually overlooked and never punished, unless it becomes outrageous or grossly offensive.”
John Kunering in Turn of the Century Wilmington
Emma Woodward MacMillan was born in Wilmington in 1893, her family home was at 210 North Second Street. Her published (1961)
recollections (A Goodly Heritage) inform us that:
"Under our Christmas tree were always many tarleton bags of various colors filled with nuts and candies. The hard candies had come in wooden tubs in our box from Macy's. These bags had been made by us for the "Kuners" who came in droves to our house each Christmas day. Most of them were the Negro boys from the [cotton] Compress, all of them knew Papa and lots of them knew us. Generally their faces were marked with
the color of the marking ink, a reddish orange, used on the cotton bales. How exciting it was to have them sit on our geegoggle and sing their tuneless songs. I confess I was rather afraid of those grotesque dirty looking figures, but the family took them in as a matter of course.
Here are two of their songs:
"Ha! low, Here we go, Ha! low, Here we go,
Ha! low, Here we go, Kuners are coming.
Sit still, ladies, and don't take a chill,
While the Captain of the horses ties up big Bill."
There are many more verses I do not recall. Our Aunt Nellie could keep
us amused indefinitely with the ones she knew. They were so lacking
in melody that you could hardly tell one from another. They were monotonous, more like chants than songs. It was not until I was at Greensboro at college that I found that the term "Kuner face," as I used
it for the word "mask" had no meaning that part of North Carolina.
Old John Kuner and his slaves were characters in only three towns---Wilmington, Hillsboro and Edenton. My older sisters can remember
when the Kuners came on horseback. It is of interest to note three
separate ways of spelling the word---Kooners, Kuners and John Canoes."
As with many customs and traditions of old, “Kunering” is a thing of the past in North Carolina, though it is still practiced in Jamaica and the Bahamas in their own particular style, called by their name: “John Canoeing.” But even if faintly-recalled African memories might have somehow influenced the antebellum "Kunering," black residents of the 1890's would use the tradition as simply an occasion to dress grotesquely and parade for gifts and treats from white families. Perhaps it is better recalled as a cultural relic of the African slavery a British colonial
system placed in America before the American Revolution, and time
had eventually erased its relevance.
About the Author:
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of the Niagara Falls,
New York area, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958, and is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board
of Trustees. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stories Old and New, Louis T. Moore, Broadfoot Publ’g, 1956/1999
Ante-Bellum North Carolina, Guion Griffis Johnson, UNC Press, 1937
James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear, Broadfoot, 1916/1999
Slavery in New York, Ira Berlin & Leslie Harris, NYHS, 2005
A Goodly Heritage, Emma W. MacMillan, WPC, 1961
Cape Fear Adventure, Diane Cashman, Windsor Publications, 1982)
An Independent People, 1770-1820, NC DA&H, 1983
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute