Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."

 

"Jonkonnu" or "John Kunering"
or "John Kooner" at Christmas

Cape Fear Historical Instutute Papers

www.cfhi.net

“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 gifts and treats from

white families.  Lacking the long Christian traditions

of the annual holiday celebrated by white families, blacks

initiated what may be called a pagan ritual of their own.

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 Griffis 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.
(UNCW web collections, page 58)

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."

 

John Kooner, “Scotch Hall,” Bertie County, 1849

“The Negroes have a custom here of dressing one of their number

at Christmas in as many rags as he can well carry. He wears a

mask, too, and sometimes a stuffed coon-skin above it, so

arranged as to give him the appearance of being some seven

or eight feet high.

He goes through a variety of pranks, which you will have an

opportunity to see by and by, and he is accompanied by a crowd

of Negroes, who make all the noise and music for

His Worship the John Kooner.

[When morning came] The family were all astir. “Christmas gift!

Christmas gift! Wish you Merry Christmas!” shouted Molly, as

she came to the door. The morning was beautiful. The air was

“frosty, but kindly.” A huge fire was blazing in the parlor, and

an enormous bowl of egg-nogg was already in preparation.

The Negroes were lounging about in holiday attire, awaiting

the customary Christmas dram. This was duly given to them

by Molly, who distributed the whiskey with the air of a queen.

The colonel came into the piazza rubbing his hands, and

caught her in his arms in a genuine doting hug.


Breakfast was announced, and we had barely left the table

when a loud shout beckoned the arrival of the hero of the

Christmas frolic. We hastened to the door. As the Negroes

approached, one of their number was singing a quaint song,

the only words to which that I could distinguish were those

belonging to the chorus: “Blow dat horn, agin!”

On e of them carried a rude deal box, over which a dried

sheepskin had been drawn and nailed, and on this, as if

his salvation depended on it, the man was thumping with

ear-splitting din. Beside him was another, who kept up

a fierce rattle of castanets; another beat a jaw-bone

of some horse departed this life; and still another had a

clevis, which he beat with an iron bolt, thereby making

a very tolerable substitute for a triangle.

The chief mummer, of John Kooner, kept up, in the meantime,

all conceivable distortions of body and limbs, while his followers

pretended to provoke his ire by thrusting sticks between his legs.

One of the party seemed to officiate as bear-leader, to direct

the motions of the unknown chief mummer. They approached

the piazza, knelt on the gorund, and continued to sing, one

of them improvising the words while the rest sang in chorus:

“O! dear maussa! O! dear maussa! Wish ye merry Christmas!

The expected [whiske] dram was given them. A few pieces

of silver were thrown from the piazza, and they left us, singing

a roisterly song, the chorus of which was: “By on de row!

(North Carolina Miscellany, pp. 226-228)

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.

 

Bibliography:

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

North Carolina Miscellany, Richard Walser, editor, UNC Press, 1962