December 25th might as well be a regular day. But it isn’t, and we know why. Beyond the religious significance of the day for Christians as the day of Christ’s birth, it’s the start of a countdown to a new year. December 25th marks the beginning of the last week of the year, and typically, people are in relaxation, thanksgiving, or celebratory mode.
The day often starts early with cooking, knockouts and fireworks as people prepare to attend a carol service. The aroma of Kontomire stew, Banku and groundnut soup fills the air. Everyone, especially children, looks their best dressed in new clothes. Later, there will be a show-off to see who has the shiniest watch and the best shoes. There’s food that would typically last for days but will not. Neighbours and extended relatives exchange visits to share food and laughter. Afenhyia pa! Twi for “Good year or Merry Christmas, rings from different corners. Everyone is in high spirits.
This is a typical Christmas morning in Ghana, and it is no different from Christmas in other parts of Africa. Christmas in Africa is a blend of seasonal traditions and old culture. Some of these traditions have survived since the middle of the first century. These traditions now shape the celebration of Christmas.
A time to worship
Christmas is primarily a Christian festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Africa, with a Christian population of 685 million people, is a vibrant adherent of Christmas traditions. In different parts of the continent, even in Muslim-dominated countries like Mali, it is a tradition for people to attend a church service on Christmas morning, irrespective of the day of the week. Christmas services often comprise carols, recitals, nativity stage plays, and a sermon. Delphine’s favourite thing about Christmas is that she can go to church on Christmas eve and Christmas day. “We are not restrained from practising our religion or adhering to religious traditions in Mali. We can live out our faith as much as we want. That is the best part for me,” she tells Ventures Africa.
In Zimbabwe, going to church during Christmas includes gift-giving. Tafadzawa Mwanengureni, a Zimbabwean freelance journalist, says, “As Christians, we go to church and exchange gifts. After church, we visit neighbouring homes to feast.”
Family, myths, and visits
South African Tech CEO Noluvuyo Gqadu recalls Christmas as a time when grandmothers ruled the roost. “We wake up early to watch colourful Christmas birds. Our grannies made us believe that there are special birds for Christmas and that the sun dances on Christmas Day. I often tried to wake up early to see the dancing sun, but I never did till this day”. For Xhosa families in South Africa, Christmas doubles as a celebration of achievements and academic excellence. “We slaughter a chicken or a sheep as umpaso – a token of appreciation for doing well academically, as Christmas is just after the academic year,” Noluvuyo says.
Tamara, a Nigerian student, believes Christmas is more than just the festivities, but also a time for family. “Christmas isn’t just about the birth of Jesus for me. It’s more like a time for families to bond. “My mother would put on Christmas movies, and the entire family would sit together to watch them,” she explained. Christmas movies rack in big due to the high seasonal demand.
Visits are also a tradition. Many families spend the day hosting guests, as others spend theirs visiting friends. “We attend to visitors all day. Honestly, it can get exhausting. The only time you get to yourself and your family is the day before or after Christmas,” says Tamara.
Most African families host dinners. Every year a different family member hosts a get-together. “Family dinners are often interesting,” Togolese Zabdiel says. “Families are together dining and laughing.” For some, family transcends relatives. “Over the years, I started embracing friends as family. Christmas is for all the people I love and dearly care for, even if they are not blood-related,” says Noluvuyo.
Food – rice, rice, more rice
Food is a Christmas staple in Africa, and rice reigns supreme during the festivities. Gambians cook Benachin, which is Jollof rice with lots of fish. Malians make Thiep and Fonio. Tanzanians make Pilau (rice) and roasted chicken. Nigerians often have different variations of rice – Jollof rice, fried rice, Ofada rice, boiled rice and stew.
As meat lovers, the traditional Christmas meal for South Africans is either Turkey or uMleqwa (hard body or free-range chicken). According to Noluyuvo, South Africans get to eat all types of meat and seafood during Christmas. There are also side dishes and snacks like fruit cakes, trifles, puddings, crackers, chin-chin, and Dodoma and Chui.
Nigerians like Bukola appreciate the abundance of food during Christmas. It’s her favourite part of the holiday. “There is chicken, turkey, and every other kind of meat. And you can eat till you drop. As a child, Christmas is the one time you can choose to eat just meat and get away with it,” Bukola says. However, this may not have been the case in Nigeria last year due to the high cost of poultry and livestock.
Decorations and gift-giving
Christmas would be incomplete in many parts of the continent without glitzy tinsel decorations, musical string lights, and fake gift boxes beneath fake conifer trees. Beginning in early December, families and businesses start mounting Christmas decorations. Kenyans, South Africans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Tanzanians are big fans of this tradition.
“One thing for sure is the lights,” says TJ, a baker in Nairobi. “People will put up lights and trees in Nairobi. Shops will be decorated. The streets are often quite beautiful during this time of the year,” she says.
Home is where Christmas is
In Nigeria, the Igbos are known to spend their holidays in their hometown. Hence, they travel to their villages en masse for the Christmas festivities.
Kenyans and Tanzanians are also particular about spending Christmas in their villages. Most people who migrate from rural areas to big cities like Nairobi for work return to their hometown during the holiday. “Everyone returns to their villages. Only a few people remain in Nairobi. Kenyans love to travel home. Every opportunity to travel, they take it,” says TJ.
Liberians and Zimbabweans enjoy travelling during the holidays as well. Some of them travel to their villages from the city, while others travel to the city, from the village. According to Zimbabwean author, Tafadzwa, it’s often a season to reunite with distant relatives who live abroad. “Christmas is one of, if not the only special season where we get to see our relatives from other countries (abroad).” Unfortunately, there will be fewer trips this year.
A time to bond
In The Gambia, a country that has experienced various conflicts, Christmas is seen as a special time for everyone to bond. “On Christmas day or eve, Christians, Muslims, and animists come together in The Gambia,” says Gambian author Modou Lamin. People make their way to the Senegambia Beach Hotel, where lanterns will be displayed. They’ll eat, drink, cheer, dance, and laugh. Because that togetherness was what we were known for in the past.”
In Mali, some Muslims join in on the celebration. “It is a get-together with everyone. Muslims and Christians get along very well during the celebration,” says Delphine. “There is usually a big feast where we cook different meals and give them to neighbours, friends, and family. Malians may not be big on decorations, but they always have a big feast,” she says.
However, for a Muslim in Mali, joining the Christmas celebration is subjective. People with lots of Christian friends usually join the celebration by joining the big feasts. For Malian Muslim Cheick, celebrating Christmas with friends is not a problem. “It is different for me because I have Christian friends. Every Christmas eve, I go to church with them, I participate in the feast and celebrate with my friends.”
Written by Suotunimi Orufa