Random thoughts

Celebrating Christmas in Africa

Celebrating Christmas in Africa – the Igbo area of south-east Nigeria in West Africa – is a whole new experience. Dive in to read all about it.
Christmas wishes from Africa

In the coming days, the world will be celebrating another Christmas, regarded by many as “the most wonderful time of the year.” Already, the Christmas festivity is in the air — I can perceive it, I am breathing it. It’s exhilarating and I look forward to more, although I fear that celebrating Christmas in Africa gets more expensive and many families can barely afford to have the Christmas celebration they want or even need.

I love Christmas, always have loved it. I love the Christmas carols, the beautiful songs that we get to hear only during this season and the Christmas movies. I love that people are more agreeable/pleasant during this period and that most people put on cheerful faces. I love that many people are charitable to others during this period, remembering that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” as Charles Dickens elegantly put it in his excellent book, A Christmas Carol. I love the food, the drinks and the merriment. I love the holiday feeling and the distinct weather of this period. Yes, there is something different and at the same time magical about the Christmas weather. It’s singular as if the elements know that something special is going on. The distinctness seems to evaporate as the Christmas holiday ends. I guess you may have observed it too.

How Africans celebrate Christmas

I fell in love with Christmas, no doubt, not only because of what the celebration represents but also because celebrating Christmas in Africa, my part of Africa , South East Nigeria, is a completely new experience; one that I am happy and grateful to relive every year. How Nigerians celebrate Christmas deserves a full study because Christmas does not end until the New Year. Yes, that’s correct. One of the reasons for that is that for most of us, the Christmas holiday season is the only time we can take any sort of break from work and life. So, once the year enters the week of Christmas, it’s like every other thing stands still until January.

In my case, growing up in a city in Africa, Christmas was the one time that I was sure of new dresses and shoes and a few tinkles just because it was Christmas. I guess as a child, who did not grow up in anything remotely resembling luxury, those were enough reasons to fall in love with Christmas. But it was more than that.

Christmas in Africa, at least my part of Africa — the Igbo-speaking of South East Nigeria in West Africa — was more than that. Christmas was more than the gifts exchanges. In fact, gifts were ancillary to the pleasures I derived from celebrating Christmas

Christmas was the only time, my family had anything resembling a holiday. The whole family used to travel to our hometown (read that as an African village) to visit our grannies and relatives. Our uncles, aunts and cousins all, also used to come home (to the village). So, I got to meet all these family members, just once a year. There is a reason they are called extended family. I treated my relatives’ home as my own; same as I’m sure their kids treated mine as theirs. I ate and slept wherever the night caught up with me – it could be any of my uncles’, aunts’ or grandparents’ home.  The same was true for any of my extended family members. No one really cooked for their immediate family members; they cooked for any hungry mouth who happened to be around when the food was ready. For me, that was one of the memories that celebrating Christmas in Africa evokes.

This was the case not just for my family but also for other families in my hometown since many of those living in cities all over the country and sometimes abroad come home to celebrate the Christmas holidays in our African village. It used to be a carnival of some sort, even today, as the tradition is still very much alive albeit of a miniature of itself. The reason that Christmas festivities takes a carnival of some sort, in my reckoning, was that many people took advantage that a lot of people visit village during the Christmas period and, therefore, they planned one sort of event or another because giri giri bu ugwu eze (the crowd is the King’s glory).

In other words, celebrating Christmas in Africa, my part of Africa in South East Nigeria, meant Christmas parties, house warming, weddings, get-together, chieftaincy title takings, to mention just the most common celebrations that took place during this period. And no; one didn’t nearly need an invitation to attend any of those events. It was enough that you heard about an event from someone who had been invited by another invitee. The conveners of the events were mostly happy to welcome you to their celebration. In fact, many would take offense that you came home for Christmas and did not attend their event, never mind that no one formally invited you. One of the reasons for that was because members of our community regarded ourselves (still do) as one big family. If you count back long enough, you will find a family connection somewhere whether through birth or marriage. Therefore, for the mere fact that you heard of an impending event, you were welcomed to attend. Don’t ask me about the logistics associated with catering for an unknown number of guests because I don’t know but somehow, the people who planned those events often pulled them off. I mean, like Mary and Jesus at the wedding in Cana, if they noticed they were running down on supply, they would just send for additional supply. Further, it was common for guests to bring drinks along, so that helped. Moreover, event planners often negotiated with drinks suppliers, so there usually was an understanding that unused drinks could be returned after an event, which gave event planners some latitude to order more drinks just in case.

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Celebrating Christmas in Africa also meant attending church bazaars, which were usually scheduled at this period because many people come home for the Christmas celebration. Scheduling bazaars during the Christmas season helped the Church to raise more money for its various projects than it could otherwise. 

Celebrating Christmas in Africa also meant the gathering of masquerades and their acrobatics displays at the village squares. Of course, traditionally, women were not supposed to watch masquerades, as they were believed to be spirits of our ancestors, but not so any more. These days, they are used for cultural displays and entertainment. A few of the masquerades would pretend to be offended if they were watched by women and would pretend aggressive behaviour towards them, so the women and children run behind an adult male and begged to be spared. So much fun.

Christmas in Africa, my part of Africa also meant football (and other) competitions among folks living in various cities. Recall that I said that families return to the village every Christmas to celebrate Christmas in the village. It was the case that they form an association of people from our hometown in these various cities, ostensibly for the welfare of our people. So, yearly folk living in different cities compete against each other in sporting activities, especially football, during the Christmas Season to build camaraderie and provide additional entertainment for the people. You might see the women organise dancing competitions.

What these meant was that there was at least one event to attend every day of the week of Christmas up to at least the end of the first week of January. So, for us, Christmas was not just the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ on 25 December but also a time to unwind from the stress of the year and get rejuvenated for the New Year. Definitely,  celebrating Christmas in Africa was pure fun. 

So, you can see why it was easy to love Christmas. Moreover, when I was a child, I had no regarding the logistics nor the cost of organising these events. My part was just to show up and to enjoy the festivities. And I still do, even as I an adult who now has to pay not only for myself but also for dependents. The joys outweigh the cost and I still definitely love Christmases.



Recommended: Omugwo (After-Birth Care) Among the Igbos of Nigeria


My Christmas message for you

  • May all the blessings of Christmas be yours now and always.
  • May there always be a reason for you to celebrate.
  • And may 2021 be the best year yet for you.
  • Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year in advance.

Before you leave this page What are your thoughts about Christmas? Do you have fond memories or traditions you might want to share with us? Use the comment section to comment.

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