St. Christopher, commonly known as St. Kitts, was originally inhabited by the Caribs before colonization by the British. The British then brought enslaved Africans to the island to work the sugar plantations. Today, the Christmas carnival in St. Kitts is a unique combination of African, English, and regional folkloric traditions that represent their joint history.
Moko Jumbies and Mummies
In the days of slavery on St. Kitts, Christmas was the time when enslaved Africans were permitted to engage in festivities in observance of the holidays. African folkloric traditions surfaced publicly in the form of the Mock Jumbies, mummies, and masquerades. These entertainments allowed the sugar plantation slaves to publicly mock and satirize their oppressors in a way that would not be tolerated at any other time of year.
The stilt-walking Moko Jumbies are believed to originate from West African mythology, although Jumbi is a West Indian word for spirit or ghost. Moko Jumbies awe crowds, walking amongst them on six to eight-foot tall stilts representing departed spirits along with the masqueraders.
Mummies’ plays are related to Mummer’s plays found in England, only with West Indies embellishments. Mummies both act in plays such as “The Mongoose Play” or “Bull Play”, or they simply dance in supportive roles. These productions are generally reserved for Boxing Day, but can appear at other times. Both the Mongoose Play and the Bull Play represent events from the island’s history, but Christian themes have also been performed.
St. Kitts Carnival Masqueraders and Clowns
Masqueraders parade the streets of St. Kitts in colorful costumes and tall hats with feathers and crowns. The first documented masquerade in St. Kitts occurred in 1890 and describes the masqueraders as wearing feathered leggings, tall headdresses and carrying tomahawks, a practice still seen today. Performances include song, poetry, dance and more.
Thought to originate with a 17th century French governor, Christmas clowns in St. Kitts, are a true original. The clowns wear bright two-toned outfits and masks, brandishing whips that punctuate the music that accompanies them. Some troupes number as many as 50 clowns and some engage in acrobatics to entertain the crowds.
Over the years, the St. Kitts Christmas season has retained many of its rich cultural traditions. However, new traditions are added with time, such as the Calypso competition and the introduction of steel drums in the 1950’s.