Christmas Traditions Across Africa
By Olamide Akinwuntan
Close your eyes and imagine a comforting Christmas scene. Where are you standing? What are you eating? Chances are that images of reindeers, pumpkin spice lattes, and carolling come to mind. Let it snow. But what happens when you don’t have snow, or a reindeer?
Climatological (yes, that’s a word) and cultural differences from the global north, mean that the holiday traditions across the Motherland can be different to those we see in Christmas-themed Hollywood productions and Hallmark cards. Here’s how different.
As with many countries in the southern hemisphere, December falls over the hottest part of summer in Africa’s southernmost country. Beach trips are common and so are outdoor camping trips, as locals of all tribes take advantage of the summer flowers and balmy weather. In the evenings many families will have a braai, a South African traditional barbecue of succulent meats and kebabs. Expect to see turkey, roast beef, suckling pig, and malva pudding – a spongy dessert with apricot jam.
Christmas Eve and Christmas day are celebrated with church services in this largely Christian nation, with carols and performances of the nativity story in its entirety. Residents in cities will travel to their home villages to spend the season with their families for a few days of revelling, enveloped in the flavourful aroma of roasted goat or nyama choma. Kenyans will purchase new clothes specially for the celebration and decorate their homes and churches with balloons, flowers, ribbons and even fake snow. The lack of reindeers does not deter Santa Claus from visiting; look out for his arrival on a camel, in a tuk-tuk or even a Range Rover.
Egypt’s minority Christian population celebrates according to the Coptic calendar, in which December 25th corresponds to January 7th. The Advent period commences on November 25th, 43 days beforehand, and a special fast – mostly vegan in nature – is observed during this time. A Christmas Eve service is held at night on January 6th in Coptic churches across the nation, ending just after midnight on Christmas Day. Children eat a spiced biscuit called kahk on Christmas Day and the whole family feasts on a meal replete with the eggs, dairy and meat forbidden during the Advent fast.
Watch out for lychee skins on the street at this time of the year! The fresh fruits are bought and eaten by Malagasy people around Christmas. At home, families put on their finest clothes and eat a meal of chicken and rice. The national flower – poinsettias – blooms at this time and is ubiquitous in decorations. Many will purchase fake snow and holly to decorate their homes and churches, in a nod to the dominance of the Western ideal of Christmas. Presents are not a big tradition here; any gifts exchanged will usually have a practical or philanthropic intent.
Africa’s most populous nation celebrates Christmas like it does everything else – with much pomp and pageantry. Nigerians in the diaspora flock home to spend time with their families and there is a general mood of merriment, evidenced by the numerous parties and concerts held across the country in December. About half the country is Christian and church services of various denominations are common and well-attended. The Christmas meal generally consists of rice, roasted meats, plantains and fried finger foods. Nigerians often have special outfits made-to-order from local tailors for the day, and vast amounts of alcohol are consumed in merriment until Boxing Day.
While Christmas traditions may vary across the continent, there is one common ground: it’s the most wonderful time of the year.