Greetings: Merry Christmas!
In Akan (Ghana) – “Afishapa!”
In Zimbabwe – “Merry Kisimusi!”
In Afrikaans (South Africa) – “Geseënde Kersfees!”
In Zulu (South Africa) – “Sinifisela Ukhisimusi Omuhle!”
In Swazi (Swaziland) – “Sinifisela Khisimusi Lomuhle!”
In Sotho (Lesthoto) – “Matswalo a Morena a Mobotse!”
In Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya) – “Kuwa na Krismasi njema!”
In Amharic (Ethopia) – “Melkam Yelidet Beaal!”
In Egyptian (Egypt) – “Colo sana wintom tiebeen!”
In Yoruba (Nigeria) – “E ku odun, e hu iye’ dun!”
Christmas is celebrated throughout the African continent by Christian communities large and small. In some communities even non-Christians join in on holiday festivities.
There are 1 billion people living on the continent of Africa in 53 countries and approximately 350 million are Christians. This makes Christmas a largely celebrated holiday and festive time in countries throughout the continent. Whether it’s Egypt in the North, Senegal in the West, The Democratic Republic of the Congo in the South or Kenya in the East, the Christmas holiday does not go unnoticed in this historic land.
The holiday season generally starts about two weeks before Christmas and continues until the New Year. It is a public holiday in most countries with colleges, schools, public and private institutions closing during this time. Like in other countries, prior to schools closing for the holiday, Christmas carol programs and events are popular and taken very seriously by students.
In Africa, many people travel long distances to their home villages to be with family, friends and extended family. Christmas trees are mostly common in cities and will be found decked out with lights, bells, stars, snow scenes, tinsel and other ornaments. Santa and his reindeer are popular in some places and growing in popularity in others. Parents purchase new clothing for children, who wear and show them off on Christmas day, and gifts and cards are exchanged among family and friends.
After a traditional Christmas Eve church service or Midnight Mass and caroling, Africans feast heartily on a variety dishes as diverse as the country’s population. After spending Christmas day with family and friends some head off to a party or to see the latest holiday blockbuster movie.
In some African cultures, mixing modern Christmas traditions with deep rooted local cultural traditions can make for a very unique holiday celebration.
Christmas Traditions by Country
West Africans feel nothing is like their yuletide traditions. Africans long to be close to home during Christmas and if away will make the long journey home to be with family.
West Africa is fairly new to Christianity but is rich in local Christmas traditions. Many have their roots in pre-Christian cultures, like the masquerades in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, while others are Africanized traditions practiced around the world.
Christmas in Senegal
In Senegal, the religious feast is gaining ground, according to churches in the country where 95% of the population is Muslim. There is a Catholic minority in southern Senegal. This minority, growing tourism and western television have all had an impact in urban areas. Many non-Christians have begun giving each other presents on December 25th. Santa is becoming a common figure in shops in southern Senegal.
Christmas in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau
In Guinea to the south of Senegal, Christians are also strongly outnumbered. Mostly modern French religious Christmas traditions have been adopted, including Midnight Mass, eating local dishes together with family and exchanging gifts.
However, in the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, local Christmas traditions have had time to evolve. In Bissau, it is not Christmas Eve without “bacalao,” a plate of dried cod imported all the way from Scandinavia. Prices on the fish skyrocket in Bissau markets before Christmas.
Unlike in most other Catholic-dominated West African countries, the 24th of December is when the great family celebration occurs in Guinea-Bissau. That’s when bacalao is served and socks with small presents are found by the lucky ones. Clothes are typically given on December 25th. Bissau citizens proudly wear their new wardrobes on the way to parties.
Guinea-Bissau is a poor country which makes the bacalao and gift traditions reserved for only a small part of the population. The Midnight Mass and street parties on December 25th is a time when all citizens can participate. Even some of the Muslim majority joins in the street parties, as there is no history of religious tension.
Christmas in Sierra Leone and Liberia
Further south, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Christmas celebrations are even more marked by poverty and post-war society. This means many cannot afford to participate in traditions and in some cases mourning casts a dark shadow over the holiday.
Even with this harsh reality, Christmas is a great social occasion for Christians in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is marked as an almost exclusively religious holiday in Liberia, which is highly influenced by freed American slaves. The low-profile celebrations are centered on church services and family unions.
In Sierra Leone, celebrations are lively and mix partying and ancient traditions. Pre-Christian traditions and popular costumes have been mixed with religious sermons, making the Sierra Leonean yuletide a unique celebration.
Spectacular and ancient masquerades and masking ceremonies now play a major part in Christmas celebrations in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Both children and secret societies participate in this very colorful party. In the cities, the police musical bands and other bands play Christmas songs in the streets during the month of December.
Christmas Day is a time for family and friends where excellent dishes are prepared and presents are exchanged. Even the country’s Muslim President noted that Christmas is a time for giving and sharing with others whatever little one has.
African-Americans in the US and Caribbean have looked to Sierra Leone historically when trying to create non-European Christmas traditions. Historians say masquerade parties with roots in Sierra Leone were performed at Christmas by slaves brought to the New World and modern families try to find inspiration in West African Christmas customs.
Christmas in Gambia
In nearby Gambia, masquerades are also becoming a Christmas tradition. For Gambians it is beyond a religious holiday when Muslims join with Christians to celebrate in style by dressing up and roaming the streets for donations with a popular masquerader known as “Agugu.”
The monies collected are to finance a grand New Year’s Day party. Christmas in Gambia is taken very seriously outside of masquerades and parties though, as a lot of shopping and preparations are done to insure everything needed for the holiday celebration in on hand. Gambian residents spread goodwill, give charitably to the poor and visit local residents.
Christmas in Nigeria
Nigeria has more Christians than any other West African country. Old rooted masquerade parties are part of the Christmas celebrations. Nigeria is culturally diverse with varying Christmas traditions. Most have masquerades, often performed by children, while others have integrated old dances into the celebrations.
Nigeria is teeming with activity during the time before Christmas Eve with travel to get home and commercial activity all over the country. The traditional “Ekon Play” has become popular in almost the entire country. Homes are decorated with palm fronds (stems) on houses, streets, in shops and churches. According to ancient traditions, palm fronds symbolize peace.
For most Nigerians, Christmas is about family and meeting up with old friends and extended family. Families also attend Midnight Mass and watch the Ekon Play, where a drama group dances with a doll symbolizing the Christ Child that spectators may hold for a small donation. After exchanging gifts, old and young participate in street life with rousing parties for the next two days.
While Americans and Europeans long for a white Christmas, exiled Nigerians are dreaming of a celebration with family, friends, the heat and parties in their villages back home. These times are marked by endless activities and merrymaking.
Christmas in Ghana and the Story of Anna
In Ghana, the religious message is the main focus of the holiday, although some of the country’s many ethnic groups have large feasts that last for two weeks, beginning on December 20th. A special and unique tradition is the honoring of midwives, based on local legend about Anna, who is said to have assisted in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and saved his life from a jealous Judean king. Anna’s story is told every Christmas in Ghana.
Christmas in Côte d’Ivoire (Formerly Ivory Coast), Benin and Togo
In Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, like in Ghana, Christmas celebrations mostly focus on the religious aspects of the holiday. The commercialization is often absent. The Ivorian Christmas is described as “discrete” by rural church representatives. Midnight Mass is central to the Christmas celebration, and those who can afford to gather family for a holiday feast.
In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire , Christmas is mostly a time when Ivorian youth indulge in heavy partying. In the past people would return to their village to spend Christmas and the New Year with family. Nowadays, celebrations have become more urban. On December 25th and on January 1st, familes who are in the same city gather at the home of an elder to eat and drink. During the season when partying, the youth spend most of their time in bars without roofs called “maquis” and in night clubs.
Religious sermons dominate Christmas celebrations in Benin. Some villages include dancing and masquerade parties similar to Nigeria.
Over 40% of the people in Togo are Christians. French Christmas traditions are common. Unlike other West African countries, Santa Claus and Christmas trees have become part of tradition. Only Christmas dishes remain Togolese.
Christmas in Sahel, Burkina Faso and Mali
In Muslim-dominated Sahel, some villages have started celebrating Christmas. Small groups in Burkina Faso and Mali are blending African religious practices with the Christian faith and have come up with unique Christmas traditions. New traditions are still in the making here.
In southern Mali where Islam, Christianity and African religions coexist in most villages, the Dogon people are blending masquerades from an ancient death cult and traditional songs and dances with Midnight Masses and a local lamb dish inspired from biblical tales into the Christmas celebration.
In many Burkina Faso villages, children mix clay, straw and water to build masterpieces outside their compounds, illustrating the biblical theme of the crib. The nativity scenes are highlights in the village Christmas decoration and stand until the rain washes them away, often close to Easter.
West and Central Africa is the world’s densest region when it comes to cultural diversity. This is slowly becoming clear when it comes to Christmas traditions. While new traditions spring up every year, the culture of Santa Claus has not threatened this rich variety. Perhaps someday, these traditions will make West Africa a holiday tourist attraction.
Christmas in South Africa
Christmas in South Africa is a time in summer to revel in sunshine and the spirit of the season. Christmas trees, both real and not, are decorated with bells and stars with gifts underneath for children, family and friends.
In South Africa the main event of the Christmas season is attending Christmas church services. For some these are midnight services or Mass on Christmas Eve where carols are sung and gifts are offered in honor of Christ. This love offering is an integral part of the service. Christmas Eve celebrations are grand in urban areas when carols are sung and special services are held. Christmas is an exciting time when diverse populations give in to the spirit of the season.
Christmas is not Merry for Everyone
Christmas is not merry for everyone in Africa. Families in Africa experience some of the most devastating poverty in the world for reasons ranging from conflict to disease.
There are a staggering 12 million Aids orphans, 13 million internally displaced and 3.5 million refugees in Africa according to the United Nations and the Inter Press Service News Agency. The good news is there are an unnamed number of charities around the world working daily to make a difference in the lives of those in need of help. These charities provide everything from medical assistance and education to food and clothing. Some charities specifically focus on making sure children in Africa have basic necessities and some even work relentlessly to bring a little bit of holiday cheer to those who might be otherwise forgotten.
Goat, chicken, turkey, beef and fish are some of the traditional staples of the holiday celebration meal in Africa. Side dishes include a variety of vegetable dishes, rice, fruits, soups and desserts. Specialties vary by country, here are just a few:
In East Africa goats are bought and roasted on Christmas day.
In Guinea-Bissau it’s not Christmas Eve without bacalao (dried cod) imported from Scandinavia.
In South Africa family barbecues (braais) at the beach are common or traditional dinners with paper hats, mince pies, vegetables, turkey, yellow rice, roast beef, plum pudding (a vestige of the British colonial legacy) and many more wonderful dishes are brought out for a grand holiday feast. Open-air lunches are also a common choice for South African families as their Christmas dinner.
In Ghana Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu (yam paste), tropical fruit and okra soup.
In Liberia, rice, beef and biscuits are on the menu and the meal is sometimes shared outdoors in a circle with family and friends.
In Nigeria Christmas means a festive meal of goat, sheep, beef, ram or chicken and a variety of vegetable dishes.
In Uganda and Kenya roasted goat meat is the center of the meal.
In Zimbabwe there’s plenty of bread, jam and tea to go with roasted goat, vegetable dishes and rice.