J’Ouvert pronounced jou-vay derives from the French word jour ouvert meaning daybreak, dawn, or day opening. It is the most electric street party that I have ever attended. J’Ouvert typically proceeds Carnival, and in places like St. Kitts, St. Croix, Nevis, St. Maarten, Aruba, Barbados, Grenada, and other Caribbean islands it’s a mark of Carnival season and the beginning of all the festivities to come.
Each island has its own unique twist on this festive tradition, but in most places, this cultural celebration starts at the crack of dawn. Right before the sun inches over the ocean, bands all line up at various points (of the capital-city or village) and begin playing music. In some cases, the bands are stationary remaining in one area, while other bands would slowly drag their sound systems around on trailers performing like a musical parade hypnotizing listeners and beckoning them to carry out provocative dances in the street.
I have been to a few J’Ouverts, and I can say that there is jovial energy in the air as bands battle each other to see how many people they could pull. As the sunrises, this continues and could go from 3 in the morning to the early afternoon. As the day progresses, you find people either keep dancing, or they start socializing or liming as the locals would call it. It then becomes a large social gathering and depending on the year’s theme, you can find people dancing in the water, dressed in the same color clothing, throwing powdered paint at each other, or covered in black oil. J’Ouvert is not like Carnival because there are no elaborate costumes involved; it’s just people dancing, drinking, and having a good time.
The history of J’Ouvert begun back in the late 1800s when French settlers living in the West Indies would have masquerade balls and celebrate Fat Tuesday. Since slaves could not attend these balls, they would have their own celebration, which evolved into the Carnival we know today. This is only one explanation as typically J’Ouvert is sometimes tied to Carnival, which traditionally took place the day before Lent. Carnival is a fascinating concept as its European inception means that it marks the tradition of removing red meat from the diet for Ash Wednesday until Easter. It is said that the first Carnival happened on the island of Trinidad, then spread to other parts of the Caribbean.
While this all begun as a celebration the day before Lent, it has evolved so different islands have their Carnival and J’Ouvert at different times in the year. Literally, a person can go island-hopping for an entire year, and every month they would run into a Carnival, J’Ovuert, or some similar festival happening on different islands. So, if you work your way down from Jamaica to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, then down to the Lesser Antilles to Aruba, Guyana, Trinidad, and Belize; a person can experience Carnival for an entire year.
Below is a list of times various Caribbean islands have their major Festivals and Carnivals. While this is not a comprehensive list, I tried my best to list the most popular festivals. Its almost certain that in January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, and December, you will find a major Carnival, J’Ouvert, or some other festival happening in the Caribbean. In between those, there are lots of other music festivals, food festivals, and other happy gatherings so there is no break from partying in the Caribbean.
Saint Barthelemy – Carnival (Feb)
Dominican Republic – Carnival (Feb)
Aruba – Carnival (Mar)
Bonaire – Carnival (Mar)
Curacao – Carnival (Mar)
Guadeloupe – Carnival (Mar)
Dominica – Carnival (Mar)
Haiti – Carnival (Mar)
Virgin Gorda – Easter Festival (Apr)
Jamaica – Carnival (Apr)
US Virgin Island St. Thomas – Carnival (Apr)
St. Maarten – Carnival (Apr)
Cayman – Carnival (May)
Bahamas – Carnival (May)
Barbuda – Carnival (Jun)
Trinidad – Carnival (Feb – Mar)
St. John US Virgin Island – Carnival (Jun)
St. Vincent & Grenadines – Carnival (Jul)
St. Lucia – Carnival (Jul)
Saba – Carnival (Jul)
St. Eustatius – Carnival (Jul – Aug)
Puerto Rico – Carnival de Ponce (Feb)
Barbados – Crop Over (Aug)
Nevis – Culturama (Aug)
Antigua – Carnival (Aug)
Anguilla – Summer Festival (Aug)
Grenada – Festival Spicemas (Aug)
Belize – Carnival (Sept)
St. Kitts – Carnival (Dec – Jan)
St. Croix US Virgin Islands – Carnival (Dec – Jan)
For those who do not live in the Caribbean and want to experience Carnival, there is a growing community of ex-pats involved in many international festivals. Places like Canada, the United States, France, Germany, UK, and the Netherlands all have their versions of Caribbean and West Indian inspired festivals.