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Christmas in Africa

Now that the holidays are in full swing, we thought we’d take a look at how different countries in Africa celebrate Christmas. Depending on your place in the social or rather economical ladder, Christmas would be celebrated differently in your household. Africa is a very spiritual continent and with the  tremendous growth in the number of Christians in Africa – coupled by a relative decline in adherence to traditional African religions. The number of families who celebrate “Christmas” as the birth of Jesus Christ would also grow.

Christmas Day, celebrated on December 25 in Catholic, Protestant, and most Orthodox churches, is a public holiday in South Africa. On this day Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The date is traditional and is not considered to be the actual date of his birth. The story of Christ’s birth has been handed down for centuries, based primarily on the Christian Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Historians differ about when Christians first began celebrating the Nativity of Christ. Most scholars, however, believe that Christmas originated in the 4th century as a Christian substitute for the pagan Festival of Saturn celebrations of the winter solstice. Christmas is the only remaining Christian event which virtually the whole world acknowledges.

Only nine million Christians were in Africa in 1900, but by the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians.There has been tremendous growth in the number of Christians in Africa – coupled by a relative decline in adherence to traditional African religions. 

Assuming the whole world sets up their Christmas trees, with boxes under it, filled with gifts for the family would be an ignorant assumption to make, not forgetting the cookies and milk for Santa Claus who comes down the chimney (which many South African homes don’t have). African’s don’t necessarily follow the western originated characters such as Santa Clause, the tooth fairy, imaginary friends and so forth, those that do are usually the ones who watch a bit too much television, Africans would instead have their “own” versions of those characters. 

Now having said that you understand that there are many people in Africa who celebrate Christmas because of their religious beliefs but we obviously don’t all celebrate it the same way. Christianity has been on the continent since the middle of the first century, and approximately 380 million Africans are Christian — so, we’ve had a lot of time to develop our own unique holiday traditions. Here’s a roundup of the most interesting ones that we’ve found:

South Africa 

The streets of Durban, KZN in South Africa during the Festive Season.

South Africa’s version of Santa Clause, much like other African countries is “Father Christmas”. We think many children know their parents are Father Christmas but that doesn’t break their Christmas spirit. Many families observe this holiday by starting their morning in church, having prepared lunch the night before and the morning of Christmas, they would come back from church and finish the preparations of what will be a feast celebrated with family members coming from all directions of this country. This is when you see those long lost aunts and uncles who worked in big cities and only returned “home” for special occasions. 

Ethiopia 

Pilgrims flock to Lalibela’s sacred Saint Miriam church while priests line the steep walls for a ceremony on Christmas morning.

Christmas in Ethiopia, like most other Christian holidays, is celebrated in its own unique way. Falling on January 7th, the holiday of Genna (also known as Lidet, or “birthday”), does not hold as prominent a place on the Ethiopian calendar as it does in other parts of the world. Easter (Fasika) reigns as the preeminent Christian holiday, but Genna nonetheless remains a major religious and cultural event throughout the country.

The main ceremonial activities of the holiday center around local Ethiopian Orthodox churches (though Protestants and Catholics also celebrate), which hold late-night services on Christmas Eve lasting well past midnight. Traditional liturgical singing marks these services, as does chanting performed by priests and deacons wearing colorful robes with gold and silver accents. Many people travel by foot from church to church, taking in various services until the light of dawn announces the arrival of Christmas morning.

Ghana 

Children dress up for a Christmas play in Ghana. Photo credit: Skinny Gourmet.

Christmas in Ghana is a well-deserved break, coinciding with the end of the cocoa harvest and beginning on December 1, four weeks before Christmas. Some families decorate their homes and neighborhoods like in the US, using lights, candles and sparkly ornaments. For most Ghanaians, it’s just the beginning. On Christmas Day, things really kick into full swing, starting with a family meal –- usually consisting of goat, vegetables and soup –- and followed by a church service for the whole community and a colourful holiday parade.

Liberia

Chidden in a Liberian Home with gifts received from the elders of the house.

Christmas is celebrated in Liberia. Christmas is a special time of the year in Liberia where the majority of people claim to be Christians (about 80%). On the west coast of Africa, in Liberia, most homes have an oil palm for a Christmas tree, which is decorated with bells. On Christmas morning, people are woken up by carols. Presents such as cotton cloth, soap, sweets, pencils, and books are exchanged. Also in the morning a church service is held in which the Christmas scene is enacted and hymns and carols are sung. Dinner is eaten outdoors with everyone sitting in a circle to share the meal of rice, beef and biscuits. Games are played in the afternoon, and at night fireworks light up the sky.

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Christmas Eve is very important. Churches host big musical evenings (many churches have at least five or six choirs) and a nativity play. These plays last a very long time, starting at the beginning of the evening with the creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the story of King Herod killing the baby boys. On Christmas day, most families try to have a better meal than usual. If they can afford it, they will have some meat (normally chicken or pork). The rest of the day is spent quietly, maybe sleeping after a busy and late night on Christmas Eve.

Nigeria

As Lagosians prepare to celebrate this year’s Christmas, the usual flurry of activites heralding the season are fully on. While some parts of the city are shining brightly with beautiful, creative Christmas decorations, residents in other parts are gearing up for a fun time, as they travel out of the city to spend time with families and loved ones living elsewhere.

From ONE member Ola Ope: “In Nigeria, we believe in Father Christmas, our version of Santa, and we light up these things we call knockouts and banga, which are like fire crackers. We always spend all the money we get/have and we cook and share food in the neighborhood.”

Western Africa 

Other areas in western Africa also have some pretty cool traditions. In Sierra Leone and much of Gambia, for example, towns and villages celebrate with masquerade parties, extending the celebration beyond the faith community to include the whole town or village in the holiday spirit. As much a social event as it is a religious one, Christmas across the region brings friends and family together for food, sport, and gifts.

We couldn’t cover the whole Africa and their way of celebrating Christmas but we thought to give you a little heads up in case you’re planning on celebrating Christmas in Africa.

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