Christmas is a big deal in Kenya, with almost everyone travelling to their hometowns to celebrate the festive season with their families. Just like most countries, Christmas in Kenya is a time to honour the birth of Jesus Christ, spend time with loved ones, and eat lots of delicious food… But they also have a few unique traditions you might not know about. From decorated Cypress trees and Christmas Day barbecues to a camel-riding Santa, here is how to celebrate a real Kenyan Christmas.
Everyone travels back home
For most Kenyans living in the cities, Christmas means it’s time to head home to visit their family. Come December, there is a mass exodus of the major cities like Nairobi, as the locals start travelling to their hometowns to spend the whole month there until after New Year’s. It’s often the only time big families will get to see everyone, so it’s a very important Christmas tradition. Don’t be surprised to see the country roads packed with travellers and the major cities almost empty on Christmas Day!
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The Christmas feast
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without the feast, and in Kenya, it’s tradition to eat a special celebratory meal on Christmas Day. You’ll see people flocking to the markets and shops in the lead up to Christmas to snag the best produce, while other families prepare their best chickens, goats or cows for the Christmas meal.
One of the most popular Christmas foods in Kenya is the nyama choma, similar to a barbecue. It involves grilling your favourite meat, like beef, chicken, lamb or goat, and pairing the meal with sides like rice and chapati. Sometimes there’s a Christmas cake or pudding, but this is more common in urban areas. And don’t forget the beer! If you’re in the city, people often go to bars and restaurants to enjoy a drink together, while in rural areas, people usually brew their own local beer.
Whatever you eat or drink, the Christmas Day feast is always a huge occasion in Kenya, with lots of neighbours and friends dropping by on Christmas Day to share the festive spirit.
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Christmas church services
Most churches in Kenya hold night vigils, or ‘Kesha’, on Christmas Eve. Worshippers come together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and sing hymns and carols. Some churches even recreate the holy event with nativity plays. At midnight, the churches will ring bells to mark the birth of Christ, while people sing praise songs to honour the start of Christmas Day.
After the service, the party really gets going. People spend the night celebrating and singing carols, with singers going door to door around their neighbourhood. Each household will give the singers small cash donations in return for their sweet melodies. On Christmas Day, the singers will present the money to their church.
Most locals also go to another church service on Christmas morning, traditionally wearing new clothes. Boxing Day on December 26th is also a public holiday in Kenya, and it’s all about visiting friends and family (and probably sleeping!).
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In the cities, you’ll see houses, streets and churches decorated with colourful ribbons, flowers and balloons. As for the Christmas tree? Instead of the traditional fir or pine tree, you’ll see beautifully decorated Cypress trees in Kenya.
You might even spot Santa roaming around the stores in the big cities like Nairobi – but he usually swaps his warm winter suit for something cooler in the hot Kenyan sun! Also, the Kenyan Santa doesn’t arrive on a sleigh with his reindeer but comes to deliver gifts on a camel, Landrover or even a bicycle.
Christmas decorations aren’t as common in the rural areas of Kenya, however it’s tradition to wear new clothes on Christmas Day. Many people hire photographers to capture the special day and the family get-together.
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How to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Kenya
There are at least 68 languages in Kenya, with the official languages being Swahili and English. This means there are quite a few ways to wish someone a Merry Christmas! Here are two common seasonal greetings to remember:
‘Heri ya Krismasi’ – Merry Christmas in Swahili
‘Nchipai e Kirismas’ – Merry Christmas in the Maasai language.
Would you like to experience a real Kenyan Christmas? Let us know in the comments below!