Pinksteren was also a celebration of the change of the seasons and of spring renewal. Dutch settlers in present-day New England brought the celebration of Pinkster to North America in the 17th century. However, by the 19th century, Pinkster had evolved into a primarily African-American holiday, celebrated by slaves and free blacks, and liberally seasoned with African culture and traditions.
In contrast to the Southern plantations, the great majority of New England farm families owned few slaves. With the less hospitable climate and less hospitable natives, farms in the north were much smaller; therefore, (except in the larger cities, once they grew) Africans were fewer and farther apart. Family members were sold down the road to other families. Pinkster was a chance for the Africans to meet up and catch up with family and friends, to taste some temporary independence, and a chance to make and spend a little money of their own. It also provided the opportunity to share, express and pass on African culture and tradition, especially to those African Americans born in North America.
In New York, families traveled from the outlying areas into New York City, which remained a largely Dutch city into the early 19th century. There they could meet up with the significantly larger population of slaves and African freemen. By the mid-1700s, celebrations in New York and Brooklyn attracted very large gatherings. African Americans sold berries, herbs, sassafras bark, beverages, and oysters, and they used the money they earned at the Pinkster festival.
Pinkster was celebrated over several days. The Dutch observed Pinkster by attending church services and holding important church functions such as baptisms and confirmations. Neighbors, freed from work, visited with one another while the children colored eggs and indulged in sweets like gingerbread.
Africans and Dutch enjoyed drinking, games, dance and music. Sellers decorated their stalls and carts with greenery and flowers, especially azaleas, which were associated with Pentecost, and Dutch sellers would hire skillful African dancers to attract attention to their stalls. Their dances were combinations of African and European steps and elements, creating new dances that were precursors to modern tap and break dancing. The slaves used the opportunity of Pinkster to take jabs at whites, mimicking and ridiculing, very subtly of course, some of white culture and habits through drama, speeches, storytelling and song.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the festival was presided over by a "King", who was himself a slave. The crowning of the Pinkster King recalled elections of leaders in some African cultures of Northeastern North America, investing respected members of the slave community with symbolic power over the whole community and honor within the slave community. This kind of celebration, inverting rank, recalls West African and European traditions like Boxing Day and Mardi Gras.
Pinkster as an African-American celebration reached its height in New England between 1790 and 1810. Before the holiday, temporary shelters were built, frequently based on styles imitating African shelters. The festival could continue for three to four days, including sports, dance, and music. The highlight was the Toto or the Guinea dance, performed to the beating of drums.
While the African slaves no doubt looked forward to Pinkster for the break from their daily drudgery and the socializing, it does not minimize the horrors of slavery.
Some time between 1811 and 1813 despite or perhaps because of its popularity the city of Albany, New York passed a city ordinance banning the drinking and dancing associated with Pinkster. Whites were concerned that the congregation and socialization of large groups of African Americans could provide them with the opportunity to plot or plan revolution. Some historians believe the council wanted to eliminate Pinkster because it didn't appeal to the burgeoning middle class, pointing to the fact that the law was eventually overturned, which would contradict the motivation of preventing uprisings.
Albert James Williams Myers, professor of Black Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz remarks, "I think that political officials in Albany and elsewhere within New York felt that since Pinkster was a gathering for Africans that perhaps it could lead to a revolt and so I think it was really fear of the possibility that something like this could happen that we have to bring it to an end. So for all intents and purposes Pinkster is a memory, at least the way it was celebrated along the Hudson before 1811."
Since the 1970s, efforts have been made to resurrect Pinkster in New York, such as at Philipsburg Manor a huge Hudson Valley manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York, once the home of an Anglo-Dutch merchant family, now a museum. Philipsburg Manor claims they have the only authentic re-creation of Pinkster in North America today, combining the most salient elements from over a hundred years of celebrations in Hudson Valley, combining both Dutch and African traditions.
Pinkster is still recognized as an official holiday in Holland, though many of the early types of celebrations are no longer in fashion, rendering the long weekend as more of just a basic holiday for all.