FSU English professor wins prestigious Chicago Folklore Prize for Boxing Day monograph

Jerrilyn McGregory is a professor of English at Florida State University.

Seventeen years ago, Professor of English Jerrilyn McGregory traveled to the Bahamas to observe the traditional Junkanoo Parade on Boxing Day. She was particularly taken by the expressive style of drumming she heard performed throughout the day. Later, McGregory asked one of her students to describe Boxing Day, to which the student replied, “it’s one grand noise.”  

That phrase inspired a new line of research, and today, “One Grand Noise” is now the title of McGregory’s comprehensive monograph chronicling the origins and modern evolution of Boxing Day. The book also won McGregory the prestigious 2022 Chicago Folklore Prize in October, which is presented by the American Folklore Society to the author of the best book-length work of folklore scholarship for the year. The award, first presented in 1904, is the oldest international award recognizing excellence in folklore scholarship. 

“Winning the Chicago Prize caused me to feel validated, not just by my peers, but by a higher power,” McGregory said. “However, in conjunction with winning this prize, I received confirmation of what I call ‘serendipity comprised evidence of living a mystical life,’ which deepened my own spirituality. As an ethnographer, you can only be in the right place at the right time so often before this propensity appears to be divine.” 

Most people know Boxing Day as a British holiday celebrated annually on Dec. 26 with holiday traditions similar to Black Friday in the U.S. However, Boxing Day arguably holds its greatest significance in the Anglicized Caribbean world, or ACW, which encompasses the Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, St. Croix and St. Kitts. ACW Boxing Day traditions vary from region to region, but they usually involve parades and gatherings where people wear ornate traditional festival clothing, dance and create music. 

“This publication constitutes the first comprehensive monograph about Boxing Day from its inception into the 21st century,” McGregory said. “Many consider globalization to be a process of homogenization or Americanization by which the world becomes increasingly uniform, but this study speaks to transnational cultural flows among Caribbean isles.”  

“One Grand Noise” chronicles ACW Boxing Day festival and performative events that have been under-documented and places them in historical context. McGregory’s book centers itself around investigating and exploring what celebrating traditions rooted in past colonization mean to people living in formerly colonized, now independent, places.  

McGregory begins by linking Boxing Day to Pharaoh Akhenaton’s reign from 1351-1334 B.C. when he originated the belief in one God. Much later, during the Crusades, McGregory connects Boxing Day’s origins as being a homonym of the Middle East’s tipping custom, Baksheesh. Boxing Day developed as the occasion when Britain’s employees distributed gratuities to their service workers until the Victorian Era. 

In these contexts, McGregory says that the irony should not be lost regarding Boxing Day marking the beginning of Carnival season in the ACW, centering Christmas Day as Boxing Day Eve. Carnival celebrations typically occur in February and March, and the tradition began in the ACW well before the end of slavery in the region.  

“Originally, [enslaved people] utilized Carnival as a cloaking device or a venting mechanism to rebel,” McGregory said. “Now, on Boxing Day the Bahamas’ Junkanoos, Belize’s Charikanari, Bermuda’s Gombey Dancers, St. Croix’s Christmas Festival Jump Ups, and St. Kitt’s J’ouvert use these time-honored fetes as a ritual to keep the collective spirit of resistance alive.” 

“One Grand Noise” marks the 15th publication of McGregory’s career, which has spanned nearly 30 years at FSU. She came to the university in 1993 after earning her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and was drawn by FSU’s location. FSU is close to Wiregrass Country, which encompasses most of southwest Georgia bordering the Florida Panhandle, and the region holds deep cultural significance for spiritual activism among African Americans. 

According to Department of English chair and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Gary Taylor, McGregory has been an essential part of the department for decades, forming the core of African American studies alongside Lawton and Distinguished Research Professor Maxine Montgomery, and her mentorship has been integral to the increasing diversity of both the department’s offerings and its student body. McGregory has also anchored the department’s approach to literature from the perspective of folklore, in what until recently was called the “Literature, Culture, and Folklore” program. 

“As her new book demonstrates, that approach, from the perspective of oral storytelling, created an interdisciplinary understanding not only of modern African American culture but of its links to African and Caribbean culture,” Taylor said. “That is particularly important in Florida, which in many ways is a Caribbean as well as a North American state.” 

Next up for McGregory is a book she presently has in progress aiming to document African American names from 1619 to the present, provisionally titled “Aareck to Zsaneka: African American Nominals, Un/naming, and Aesthetic Justice.” 

For more information about the Chicago Folklore Prize, its history and previous recipients, visit the American Folklore Society online.