A special moment of celebration of the birth of Jesus and commemoration of his figure. An occasion to meditate on one’s relationship with religion and, spiritually, to be “reborn”. This is Christmas for the Christian inhabitants of Africa who, in some areas, give children born at this time special and evocative names such as Emmanuel and Emmanuela, Noelle, Noella, Christine or Cristinah and Christopher.
In countries such as Tanzania, but not only there, Christmas for many inhabitants is the most important time of the year when it is “required” to return home, to find relatives and friends and to tell each other what happened during the year. Making up for time spent apart, each in their new home.
Christmas in Africa: an inclusive celebration
This applies to Christians but not only. Reuniting and sharing moments of joy turns Christmas into a feast not only with religious but also family significance. It is a celebration of the deepest and most authentic relationships, celebrated with enthusiasm even by non-Christians, who happily mingle in the feast, participating in the preparation of traditional dishes and sharing the table with Christian friends.
From being a very religious holiday – as it is everywhere in the world – Christmas is reinterpreted as a family celebration and an opportunity to have fun. Local beers, such as Dengelua and Mbege (from Tanzania), are sipped, and soft drinks, which generally do not appear much in families, are served. They eat rice dishes, enriched with chicken, beef or mutton. It depends on the economic availability of each family, but the menu is always a special one, whether it is the presence of fufu, a tasty soup or fish dishes.
Christmas in Africa: a day to get together and have fun Such an inclusive celebration cannot be limited to ceremonies at churches but also overflows into the streets and, where possible, onto the beach. Many events are organised by Christians and non-Christians alike to entertain the families gathered for this long-awaited 12-month occasion. Outings, gatherings, games for the little ones and always lots of music. There are those purely for Christmas – in Uganda those of Philly Bongole Lutaaya are very popular – but not only.
To fully enjoy the Christmas atmosphere and, before that, to be able to catch up with loved ones who are not always close by, many have holiday days. However, it is not taken for granted that these are long, it depends from country to country but also from job to job. The 25th and 26th of December are, however, a holiday for everyone. A holiday that, even in Africa, is announced weeks in advance by the decorations that colour the streets and houses. The Christmas tree (Cupressus) is often decorated with disco lights, balloons, Christmas cards, sweets and small presents that are burnt at midnight on 1 January. A kind of tradition, in some areas, which today it is, however, rare to see still: nowadays, many prefer simple “western decorations”, even if they are very simple because they are expensive. The others ‘are made for rich people’.
The same applies to gift exchange: seen by many as a ‘modern’ initiative and only for those who can afford it. Unwrapping shiny packages is not the ritual at the heart of the festivity, which for most is more about getting together, having fun and, above all, embracing family and friends.
Christmas in Africa of a child teacher today
Christmas in Africa is seen and experienced very differently and the lights in the streets are not enough to dazzle and overshadow some glaring inequalities. Indeed, there are those who spend Christmas “looking at the things others do. Because I, personally, don’t have much fun since I don’t have the means to do so”.
Rather than remaining a time for families to come together, for friends and colleagues to meet, and for the less privileged to be shown love and a sense of community, Christmas in some contexts has turned into a celebration where those with money show off their wealth, flaunting it in front of those who do not have access to the same fortune.
This is the feeling of some. It has not always been this way and probably still is not everywhere. In any case, let’s try to close our eyes and rely on account of a Christmas memory of a former child, now a teacher, who has not forgotten the magic of the feast of yesteryear.
“The day was planned months in advance and a new dress was a must for everyone. To make sure we had a well laid table and a menu worthy of the feast, we started collecting money already in January. On 24 December, in almost every household, a large bull was slaughtered, along with chickens and goats, then cooked with rice and enjoyed while sipping ‘ajono’ (in Ugandan), also known as ‘marwa’. This special brew is drunk in company throughout the festive period until New Year’s Day, days when women and children can taste the soda. No presents but lots of music, played live, and every Christmas the mystery of the Sun, which, according to a popular myth, was supposed to wake up at dawn on the night of the 25th to dance in the sky. A legend to discourage sleepyheads and make the atmosphere even more special.
Article by Marta Abbà.
This account of Christmas in Africa does not pretend to be a representative description of the myriad ways in which it is interpreted and celebrated in the different corners of this great continent. It stems from the stories, memories and feelings of the many African teachers and volunteers associated with the SeedScience project, to whom our thanks go: Prince Neequaye, Joel Kimbowa, Samuel Addo, Grace Edwin Msangi, Yuliana Jasper Mtenga, Naboth Oguli, Hagar Biney, Racheal Tambula, Samuel Odeme, Salma Mfinanga.
We wanted to try to see through their eyes, through their words, the feast that many others are also about to celebrate, in a way that is still different from Africa but also from region to region and from home to home.
Our way of wishing you a choral, colourful and authentic Merry Christmas.
Afehyia pa ooo – Twi language
Heri ya Krismas – Swahili language
Ssekulu enungi – Luganda language
Amazalibwa amaluungi – Lusoga language
Ebaga loajokan – Ateso language