Junkanoo first began as a temporary celebration of freedom for slaves who were given three days off at Christmas time. Donning scary-looking masks, slaves played homemade musical instruments (drums and bells) and cavorted about freely on the island.
The origin of the word "Junkanoo" is unknown. The most popular belief is that it's derived from "John Canoe," an African tribal chief who demanded he be allowed the right to celebrate with his people even after he was brought to the West Indies as a slave. Others believe the name is from the French "gens inconnus," which means "the unknown people" and refers to people wearing disguises and thus being unknown.
Junkanoo's roots can be traced to West Africa. In fact, other areas in the region that practised slavery -- like Bermuda and Jamaica -- had their own versions of John Canoe parades.
Junkanoo probably began in the 16th or 17th century. Around Christmas, Bahamian slaves were given a few days off. This allowed them to leave the plantations to be with their families and to celebrate the holiday with music, dance and costumes. In the early years, Junkanoo participants wore grotesque masks and walked on stilts. They were allowed to move around anonymously and let off steam.
After slavery was abolished, Junkanoo almost disappeared, but a few islanders kept the tradition going. Over time, Junkanoo's popularity has waxed and waned. Today, it is a joyous celebration of freedom. It is an important part of the Christmas season, and The Islands Of The Bahamas is the only country where you can experience it.