For many individuals, Africa is synonymous with arid deserts and tropical jungles, barely compatible with the northern hemisphere concept of Christmas. And yet, Christmas is celebrated across the continent by both large and small Christian communities. Values, culture, and even the date of the holiday vary from place to place. Still, the religious foundation of the celebration remains the same, uniting people from all aspects of life and culture.
Christmas celebrations are festive and colorful. Christians are not the only ones celebrating the birth of Christ; it is undoubtedly the most popular and celebrated holiday throughout Africa. Since the middle of the first century, Christianity has been on the continent. Approximately 350 million Africans are Christians — so, they’ve had a lot of time to develop their unique holiday traditions, like masquerade parties and dining al fresco.
When it comes to cultural diversity, West and Central Africa is the world’s densest region, which becomes even more evident regarding Christmas traditions. With new traditions springing up every year, the culture of Santa Claus has not threatened the diversity. Many Christmas traditions have their origins in pre-Christian cultures like the masquerades in Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
From Ghana to South Africa, carols are sung everywhere on Christmas Day. People travel to far off places to celebrate the day with their families where gifts are exchanged, and meats are roasted for a flavorful time. However, the celebration is different in North America or Europe, where Christmas is celebrated as per the Coptic calendar by the Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt.
Another notable difference is the weather. In the southern hemisphere, countries in December experience the height of summer, which is why a typical Christmas Day in South Africa often involves trips to beaches and sunbathing sessions to enjoy the weather.
Church Services and Caroling
Christmas celebrations in Africa is mostly about going to church. Nativity scenes and dances are performed along with carols. In some places like Malawi, groups of young children go door-to-door to perform dances and Christmas songs to homemade instruments. In return, they receive a small amount of cash donations the same way that Western children do when caroling. In many countries, on Christmas Eve, processions take place after a church service is held. These are often cheerful occasions comprising of music and dance. For example, in The Gambia, people parade with large lanterns called fanals, made in the shape of boats or houses.
Christmas Decorations and Dinner
The key part of the festive ritual in Africa is Christmas dinner. In most of the countries, there is a public holiday on Christmas and people avail it to the fullest to visit family and friends. In East Africa, people purchase goats at the local market for roasting on Christmas Day. On the other hand, in Ghana, Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu and okra soup; and in Liberia, the dinner comprises of rice, beef, and biscuits.
On the other hand, Christmas decorations are seen on shop fronts, trees, churches, and homes commonly throughout Christian communities in Africa. You might witness sights including fake snow decorating storefronts in Nairobi, palm trees loaded with beautiful candles in Ghana, or oil palms laden with bells in Liberia to create an exciting and uplifting ambiance.
Exchange of Gifts
Even though the holiday is not nearly as commercial in Africa as it is in Europe or North America, individuals who can afford it, exchange gifts at Christmas. The focus is more on the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus than it is on gift-giving. New clothes are the most common gift bought at Christmas, which are usually worn to church. In rural Africa, few people can afford gifts or toys. In more impoverished communities, if gift-giving occurs, it usually takes place in the form of school books, soaps, clothes, candles, and other practical commodities.
Each country has its own distinctive celebrations, no matter how small its Christian population. In the land of Africa, Christmas is an integral part of the African culture. Africa is known to party big, and Christmas is the right time to get out and enjoy the company of your family and friends over cold drinks and tantalizing meals. It is not unusual to see people who aren’t particularly religious wishing their neighbors or selling Santa hats or decorative Christmas lights. It is indeed a season to be jovial!