With Christians making up almost half of the continent’s population, Christmas is a big deal in Africa, and they sure know how to celebrate. Forget the snow, fir trees and mulled wine. In Africa, Christmas is all about festive concerts, sunny outdoor feasts and Christmas street parades. For almost everyone in Africa, Christmas is a time to gather with friends and family, go to church and enjoy a big feast – but every country also has its own unique festive traditions. From a camel-riding Santa to masquerade parties, here are 6 wonderful African Christmas traditions.
1. Church services and Christmas caroling
In most African countries, church services are the most important Christmas tradition. The Yuletide season is all about honouring the birth of Jesus and you’ll find church services on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You’ll also find nativity scenes, nativity plays, dance performances, communion tables and carolling.
In some countries like the Congo, the locals bring a gift for their church’s Communion table. They also hold big musical events at their church with at least five choirs and a long nativity play. In Malawi, you’ll see children going door-to-door to perform Christmas carols and play traditional instruments in return for small cash donations. While in Zambia, the churches hold nativity plays and locals sing beautiful carols in the streets.
In some countries around the world, the end of the Midnight Mass signals the time to go to bed to wait for Santa. But in many African nations, it means the party’s just getting started! In countries like The Gambia, a joyous parade is held after the Christmas Eve church service. The locals dance through the towns with fanals – large lanterns made from bamboo and paper in the shape of houses or boats. The fanals are lit with candles inside and carried from house to house to collect donations. In both The Gambia and Sierra Leone, the towns also celebrate with colourful masquerade parties.
No matter the size of the Christian population, almost every country in Africa has its own amazing way to celebrate the spiritual side of Christmas.
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2. Special Christmas feasts
Almost everyone in the world agrees that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus… and enjoying a feast. It’s no different in Africa, with many countries putting on their own traditional and delicious Christmas meals. In Kenya, it’s all about grilled meats at the nyama choma or meat and potato stew. South Africans agree, with their famous outdoor braais, or special barbecues at Christmas time.
Tanzanians like to roast a cow or goat to share around the village and wash it down with home-brewed beer, while in Liberia, you’ll find beef, rice and biscuits for your Christmas feast. In Nigeria, flavoured rice, tomato stew and fried chicken or goat are the stars of the festivities, while in Ghana, the locals dish up their famous Jollof rice, fufu and okra soup.
Wherever you go and whatever you eat, the Christmas meal in Africa is all about inviting all your friends and family to share in the good times – and everyone is welcome.
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3. Not everyone believes in Santa Claus
Santa isn’t a continent-wide African Christmas tradition. Some countries just don’t believe in a red-suited jolly man arriving on his sleigh to leave presents for the kids.
In Liberia, you’ll see Old Man Bayka, the ‘devil’ who doesn’t give presents but instead walks the streets on Christmas Day begging you for presents. Also, instead of saying “Merry Christmas” in Liberia, the locals say “My Christmas on you”. This basically means “please give me something nice for Christmas”.
Also, some people in Ethiopia and Egypt don’t believe in Santa Claus, while in Kenya, Santa is depicted as arriving on a camel or bike instead of a sleigh!
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4. Christmas isn’t on the same day everywhere in Africa
While the majority of countries in Africa celebrate Christmas on December 25th, it’s not the same everywhere. The Coptic Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia actually celebrate Christmas on January 7th as they follow the older Julian calendar.
In Ghana, the Yuletide festivities get started as soon as December arrives, with shops, streets and homes decorated in twinkling lights and ornaments. There’s also double the celebration in Ghana, as Christmas falls at the same time as the end of the cocoa harvest.
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5. Gift-giving at Christmas time
Whether you believe in Santa or not, giving out presents isn’t usually a major African Christmas tradition. People do share gifts with each other, but it’s also tradition to donate to the churches and orphanages with presents like clothes, books, soap, candles and toys.
One of the most popular gifts across Africa is new clothes. Whether you buy them from stores or get them tailored, almost everyone arrives at church on Christmas Day rocking their new outfits. The locals also usually buy their new clothes months in advance, as the shops are notorious for hiking up the prices in December since they know people will come to buy their new Christmas clothes.
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6. Unique Christmas decorations
In many African countries, it’s tradition to string up Christmas lights and ornaments and even decorate trees… But the African Christmas trees are just a little different from your usual pine or fir tree. You’ll see everything from Cypress trees to mango and palm trees bedazzled with little ornaments like bells and candles across Africa, while the big stores and hotels usually put up more extravagant decorations like fake snow.
Do you know any African Christmas traditions? Share with us in the comments below!