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Historic Stagville Reflects West African Christmas Tradition

“Christmas at Stagville” holiday open house

Discover holiday traditions over time at Historic Stagville during the “Christmas at Stagville” holiday open house, Dec. 2, noon to 4 p.m. Help decorate the Bennehan house, learn about the West African Jonkonnu tradition, and experience an evening lantern tour after 5 p.m.

In addition to visiting the 1810s house of the Bennehan-Cameron slaveholders, the 1850s house of an enslaved family, and the 1910s house of a freed family after emancipation, visitors can help decorate the houses for the Christmas season. Listen to live period music at the Bennehan house, make a paper ornament or pomander to take home and whitewash greenery for decorations, just as sharecropper families did in the early 1900s.

Stagville stands out as one of the few places in the U.S. where Jonkonnu has been documented. This West African fusion tradition was performed by bondsmen around Christmas time. They marched house to house across the plantation wearing handmade costumes and masks to present a vibrant drum and dance performance, sing songs and command money in exchange. Evidence of this powerful tradition shows the resiliency and preservation of the West African culture at Stagville. Jonkonnu will be featured in the afternoon program and is the evening centerpiece.

Experience the interpretive Jonkonnu performance with drum and dance during the lantern tours, 5 to 7 p.m. The ticketed tours will teach about the African cultural connections of the enslaved people, the Christmas traditions of Horton Grove and how traditions changed for sharecroppers after emancipation. Tickets are $5 and free to children under age three. They are available at Historic Stagville, or by calling (919) 620-0120. The event usually sells out, so act quickly.

Stagville is the former site of one of the largest plantations in North Carolina, owned by the Bennehan Cameron family and home to more than 900 enslaved people. Historic Stagville State Historic Site interprets the lives of over 3,000 individuals who experienced slavery at Stagville, as well as the story of the Bennehan-Cameron family. Historic Stagville preserves a fraction of the buildings and land from the plantation, including a slaveholder’s house (1787-1799), four houses of enslaved families (1851) and a giant barn (1860).

For more information, call 919-620-0120. The site is located at 2821 Old Oxford Road, Durham, NC, is nine miles north of downtown Durham, about 30 minutes from Chapel Hill, and about 45 minutes from Raleigh. It is part of the Division of State Historic Sites within the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

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