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St. John Festival: Little Island, Big Sound in USVI

St. John may be the smaller of the collective U.S. Virgin Islands, but it’s just as capable in attracting crowds to attend its festival, which is also known as Carnival.

The island only has two towns, Coral Bay and Cruz Bay, and all the activities take place in the latter. While events happen throughout the whole month of June, it is the last week that locals and visitors alike get to experience the true essence of the festival, particularly the final day, July 4.

Men dressed in traditional tribal attire as they participate in the St. John Festival Parade. (Photo by London Alexaundria)

The St. John Festival Village is where most of the action takes place as festivalgoers pour into the open-door arena every night to watch calypso and soca bands take the stage as well as delight in local cuisine from street vendors.

Children can also get in on the fun with their very own Carnival that’s adjacent to the village.

On the surface, the festival may appear as just a good time, but it’s more than that. It is a celebration of culture that many take seriously. One of those more impactful events is Emancipation Day. Taking place July 3, the St. Johnians commemorates the abolishment of slavery, with an re-enactment of slavery being abolished in 1848 as well as other cultural demonstrations.

July 4 is the day final day of the festival and begins with j’ouvert (pronounced jou-vay), which is an activity that involves waking up before (or staying up until) daybreak to convene in the streets and dance through the town.

J’ouvert actually started with slaves in the Caribbean islands. Once a year French settlers would throw lavish parties and parade around the streets before entering the party. The slaves would mockingly follow behind them and it eventually became known as j’ouvert because it took place early in the morning.

Woman participating in the St. John Festival Parade strikes a pose in her samba costume that is often worn during Caribbean carnival. (Photo by London Alexaundria)

The end of j’ouvert leads to a massive parade that overtakes the town. People line the streets in the hot temperatures to see local beauty queens, bands, dancers and more. The parade, however, isn’t just limited to the people of the island, fellow USVI’s St. Thomas and St. Croix participate, as well as Puerto Rico and others.

As the day falls into night, the festival ends with a majestic display of fireworks dispersed across the sky right over the bay, leaving a mark on the month-long bash.

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