While in Europe and some parts of America, people celebrate Pentecost (or in England and Ireland, Whitsun), New York had its own version. Originally known as Whitsuntide and brought over by the Dutch settlers of New York, it was eventually supplanted by English traditions. However, it was kept alive by the slaves of the Dutch, evolving into an African-American holiday known as Pinkster. While Pinkster is not exclusive to New York and the Hudson Valley, the combination of Dutch settlers and their African-American slaves created something truly unique, and truly New York.
The research for this article comes from the book Gotham, by Burrows and Wallace, The Historic Hudson Valley organization (Hudsonvalley.org), and my own personal experiences watching reenactments at Phillipsburg Manor, presented by Historic Hudson Valley. Some links are to Wikipedia for the reader’s curiosity, but it is not a main source.
The Origins of Pinkster
As mentioned above, Pinkster was known as Whitsuntide in The Dutch Republic (Gotham 403), the original European settlers of the New York (New Netherland) territory. They set up farms known as patroonships up and down the Hudson Valley and New Amsterdam and housed slaves to work the fields.
Whitsuntide was a subdued and religious holiday for the Dutch, who used the time off from work for church-related activities, though children often dyed eggs and ate sweets like gingerbread as well (HudsonValley.org).
To the Dutch’s African-American slaves, it was something more. Any time off from toil was a cause for celebration, and they would spend that time getting together with families and friends. Unlike the large plantations in the South, most farms in the Hudson Valley had only a few slaves, and families were often broken up and sold to other local farms. This made holidays like Whitsuntide one of the few times where they could reunite with loved ones. From New Amsterdam to Albany, families would come together with song, dance, games, and West African traditions that they kept alive through these events.
Whitsuntide Becomes Pinkster
After the Third Anglo-Dutch War in 1672-74, New Netherland became New York, and New Amsterdam became New York City. The old Dutch ways slowly died out in the city, but they remained fairly strong in the Hudson Valley. Still, by the American Revolution the Dutch had mostly left Whitsuntide in the past. But the tradition lived on among their slaves, free from the religious connections. Whitsuntide became Pinkster (or sometimes Pinkster time).
Freemen and slaves from the Hudson Valley, and to a lesser extent, Long Island, brought Pinkster back to New York City. In a cultural reversal, it became popular with poor whites in the city as well. Interracial camaraderie had become more acceptable (though still looked down upon) in New York, and blacks and whites often frequented the same dance halls and taverns (Gotham 403). Pinkster was a natural extension of that.
As one resident remembered: “All made it an idle day; boys…might be seen all day standing in the market laughing and joking and cracking eggs. In the afternoon the grown up apprentices and servant girls used to dance on the green in Bayard’s farm (Gotham 403)
Other popular meeting places for Pinkster included the marketplace at Brooklyn Village, Catherine Market (on Catherine Street), especially on the east side of the fish market in front of Burnel Brown’s Ship Chandlery (Gotham 403). At the markets, African-American vendors would often sell azaleas (associated with the Pentecost) and sweets, and some would perform dances such as the “break-down.” Originating as a pasttime at home and in barns, it was a jumping, athletic dance/competition accompanied with rhythm made from slapping hands on the sides of their legs. Performed on a springy wooden board, it seemed a combination of Dutch clogging combined with African traditions and rhythms. According to Historic Hudson Valley, they “were the forerunners of tap and breakdancing.”
Pinkster was always presided over by a “king,” who was voted for by their peers. This echoes traditions such as Mardi Gras, Boxing Day, and even the Harvest King tradition in Dark-Middle Ages Europe
Pinkster eventually faded away by the late 19th Century, but since the 1970’s there have been attempts to revive the holiday. Historic Hudson Valley holds a “Celebrate Pinkster” event at Philipsburg Manor (Sleepy Hollow, NY) where they do their best to recreate and educate about the holiday. 2018 will mark 41 years of “Celebrate Pinkster.”
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