Christmas is often associated with North America and European countries showcasing glowing Christmas light shows, winter markets, parades, and picturesque views of snow-capped mountains. On the other hand, an Africa Christmas does not have a lot of those characteristics but is nonetheless remarkable. Here is why!
The vast majority of African countries are entering the hot season of the year. That is not to say Christmas is taken for granted in Africa. With over 350 million Christians living in the continent, many Southern and West African countries celebrate Christmas with massive festivities, even those that are predominantly Muslim.
Although these countries do not celebrate Christmas in a conventional like in the United States or Europe, the unique and distinct differences are worth noting. Have you ever thought of experiencing an African Christmas? If this statement sparks your interest, you are in the right place. Keep on reading!
Since every African country has a distinct way of celebrating Christmas, let us take a closer look at some of these traditions.
History of Christmas in Africa
We all know the worldwide meaning of Christmas, on which people commemorate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Although historians are debating about the actual date of his birth, the overall accepted date is December 25th.
African history has an additional layer to the worldwide known account of Christmas. The earliest signs of Christian belief were found in Egypt in the 1st century AD. In many African countries, it symbolizes the birth of African God Ra (Osiris). So, when African people decorate trees during this period, they are sending regards to ancient times when Ra’s birthday was celebrated. It is also considered the celebration of the winter solstice in some countries.
Fun Facts about African Christmas Traditions
- Egypt and Ethiopia follow the Julian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on January 7th.
- Senegal does celebrate Christmas despite being a Muslim dominated country. They even decorate mosques with Christmas trees.
- The Gambia celebrates Christmas with a massive parade with large lanterns called fanal in the shape of boats.
Common Christmas Traditions in Africa
Here are some traditions followed by all the African countries celebrating Christmas.
Going to Church
Despite small differences among the ceremonies, going to church is a must at Christmas. The church ceremonies consist of carols, nativity play, and dance performances.
In some countries like Malawi, children dance and sing while other children play traditional instruments. These children usually receive gifts afterward. In some countries, churches can organize parades as well.
No matter what country you visit, you will notice the significance of the church in Christmas celebrations. They also provide emergency food and essentials to hungry children and their families during the Christmas season.
Christmas dinner is a perfect opportunity for family gatherings, so African communities take it very seriously. Christmas was long-declared a public holiday in Africa, so all the family members can attend the dinner on this special day.
The type of meal depends on the country, which we will cover in the next section.
Christmas and gifting are two inseparable concepts, and Africa is no exception. Although the majority of the continent cannot afford a luxury lifestyle, gifting remains a common tradition.
Instead of expensive gifts, people usually gift each other affordable items or services. Those who can afford to give more help to poor communities by donating books, clothes, and toys to orphanages or churches.
Who needs snow for Christmas decorations? With the traditional touch, each African country has its handmade decorative items. Recent years saw some technological advances like fake snow at store entrances. Palm trees are also ideal for decorating with lanterns and bells.
African Christmas Traditions by Country
We can now look at some traditions practiced explicitly in some countries that have a high Christian population.
South Africa Christmas Traditions
South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, so the country celebrates Christmas during the hot summertime of the year. Combined with the fact that it is a public holiday, you will see a lot of people hanging out outside.
Many families go camping in massive tents, while those staying in cities organize outdoor events like traditional barbecue (braai). Families can opt for making braai on the grill or cook more traditional South African dishes.
Popular traditional dishes include turkey, duck, mince pie, roast beef, and pudding-like Plum pudding imported from the UK, and the locally invented Malva pudding.
The streets in the Cape Town and central districts are decorated with lights and inflatables. Also, most restaurants and shops will be closed since it is a national holiday, so most people do grocery shopping well in advance.
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Christmas in Madagascar
The African Christmas traditions in Madagascar is more traditional than in South Africa. Going to church on Christmas Eve is very common, and families eat dinner in large community gatherings is commonly observed, especially outside churches.
You will hear strangers saying Merry Christmas to each other in the Malagasy language. You can also see many decorations on indigenous poinsettia trees.
The meals consist of chicken or pork with yellow rice. Cakes or desserts are made of lychees that commonly grow in Madagascar.
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African Christmas in Nigeria
Christmas is one of the most festive times in Nigeria, and it is time people spend with their families to show appreciation to their loved ones.
One of the most exciting advantages of living in Nigeria is that you will get to observe both Christian and Muslim holidays since those are the two primary religions in the country.
Most Christian households go to church service is held on Christmas morning to celebrate the birth of Christ. After visiting the church, the celebration starts with a traditional Christmas dinner party. Of course, there are several variations to celebrating an African Christmas, depending on if you are single, have a family, or the elderly.
Typically, smaller families can celebrate Christmas day with other families. They usually have grandparents from the countryside to be part of this special day.
In a larger family, one family member hosts the celebration, and kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, friends and families, and people in the community are invited to come to have fun.
The most commonly prepared main dish consists of turkey, goat, sheep, or chicken, and side dishes range from fried rice to jollof rice, skewed beef (suya), and vegetable salads.
Also, depending on what tribe a family is from, they will make meals from their trip. You can see a list of the most popular Nigerian food during the festive season.
Community service is also a considerable part of an African Christmas in Nigeria. Church congregations play a crucial role by organizing events to visit the orphanages, adult family, and homeless homes, to visit the families and children.
The church members come with gifts, food, and drink, and the choirs will perform Christmas songs in many languages like Yoruba, Fulani, and Igbo.
Boxing Day is the day after Christmas when the wise men went to visit Jesus. In traditional churches in Nigeria, the church go on a short trip as a way to replicate the visit of the wise men. When they get to the location, usually a park with a lot of open space, they start the love feast.
The love feast is a ceremony where people come as they are to eat, drink, and be merry. A vital component of the love feast is a gift exchange. No matter how inexpensive a gift item is, everyone has to participate.
You exchange your wrapped gift with your church family and friends and establish new friendships during the process. Other activities during love feast include singing, dancing, Bible recitation.
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African Christmas Traditions in Uganda
The proper name for Christmas in Uganda is Sekukkulu. In the Ugandan cities, the churches became the center of the celebrations with church bells and carols by candlelight.
The churches hold ceremonies and events during the day. Many people visit churches with their fanciest clothes that they bought by saving up money for months. There are dance and singing performances, competitions and football matches all over the city.
In the evening, large dinner parties are organized, especially for the poor who can’t afford many meals in daily life. Christmas meals are usually slow-cooked one day in advance. Matooke is an essential ingredient in the meals as in indigenous fruit that is steamed and mashed.
Interestingly, children of Uganda don’t believe in Santa Claus, which is why they never expect gifts. People who live in rural areas try their best with the available resources like food and electricity to be part of the Christmas celebration.
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African Christmas in Chad
Although Chad is predominantly Muslim, they do celebrate Christmas. Compared to the previous countries on the list, Chad has the least westernized Christmas traditions. You will barely see any Christmas trees or fancy Christmas lights. Buying gifts is also quite rare since people cannot afford it.
The morning of Christmas is spent at a traditional breakfast called millet. The supper is usually served with lamb or sheep. For Chadians, spending time with family is the most crucial aspect of Christmas, and they do that indoors, so you are less likely to encounter outdoor events.
Conclusion: Why Experience an African Christmas?
Have you ever thought of experiencing an African Christmas? During the holiday season is a great time to visit Africa. You will encounter not only the vibe of the holiday but also the culture and heritage of the country.
If you could choose a country to visit during the holiday season to experience an African Christmas, which one would you choose and why? I would love to hear your comments below!
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African Christmas Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Yes, many of them have a sizeable Christian population; therefore, they celebrate Christmas.
Akan (Ghana): Afishapa
Zimbabwe: Merry Kisimusi
Afrikaans: (South Africa) Geseënde Kersfees
isiZulu: (South Africa) Sinifisela Ukhisimusi Omuhle
Swazi (Swaziland): Sinifisela Khisimusi Lomuhle
Sotho (Lesthoto): Matswalo a Morena a Mabotse
Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya): Kuwa na Krismasi njema
Amharic (Ethiopia): Melkam Yelidet Beaal
Egyptian (Egypt): Colo sana wintom tiebeen
Yoruba (Nigeria): E ku odun, e hu iye’ dun!
There are 38 countries with a significant population of Christian. Since some dominant Muslim countries like Egypt and Sierra Leone do celebrate Christmas, between 38 and 41 African countries, celebrate Christmas.
The most dominate Christian countries include: Angola (79%), Benin (42.8%), Botswana (70%), Burkina Faso (30%), Burundi (75%+), Cameroon (70%), Cape Verde (93%), Central African Republic (91%), Chad (40%), Comoros (71.9%), Democratic Republic of the Congo (95.7%), Republic of the Congo (50%), Equatorial Guinea (90%), Eritrea (50%), Eswatini (88%), Ethiopia (62.8%), Gabon (80%), Ghana (71.2%), Ivory Coast (33.9%), Kenya (84.8%), Lesotho (95%), Liberia (85.5%), Madagascar (41%), Malawi (85%), Mauritius (32.7%), Mozambique (51.6%), Namibia (90%), Nigeria (40%), Rwanda (59.6%), São Tomé and Príncipe (80%), Seychelles (76%), South Africa (80%), South Sudan (60.5%), Tanzania (61.4%), Togo (38%), Uganda (84%), Zambia (96%), and Zimbabwe (85%).
These African countries have less than 21% Christian population: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt (15%), Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone (15-21%), Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia; with Sierra Leone and Egypt being the highest rate at 21% and 15% respectively.
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