How the US changed my African perception of Christmas


by Nelima Kerré • So Christmas this year was uneventful AGAIN. For the past couple of years, it hasn’t bothered me too much because all my family was here. This time my brother, sister and cute niece are back in Kenya enjoying a Kenyan Christmas – which I haven’t enjoyed in a couple of years – and just corresponding with them made me realize how dull Christmas can be in the US.

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When we were much younger, it was a no brainer that we were expected to go to ’shags’ (upcountry or grandparents ‘village’). We thoroughly enjoyed it, because being away from the city and surrounded by nature was always fun and healing. We watched my grandma or aunts milk the cows in the morning, helped carry water from the upstream of the river, usually a cow would be slaughtered, we’d watch the elders drink the local brew ‘busaa’ made of millet and sorghum. Everyone would dance to the traditional music played on Kenyan instruments. What bliss (expect that the masses were unusually loooong)!

As we got into our teens, ’shags’ wasn’t as appealing anymore. We wanted to stay in the city and attend the hottest parties. Going down to ‘coasto’ (Mombasa) became the Christmas/New Year tradition. Yes it was all about party time (’hanye a.k.a rev a.k.a rumba’).

Then I came to the US. My first Christmas was ‘mild,’ they said, but I was freezing. I finally understood the meaning of a White Christmas, because everyone was dismayed we weren’t having one. The commercials about the Christmas sales were ridiculous! I was soon introduced to the tradition of ‘gifts’ and ‘Secret Santas’. And here I was thinking that Christmas was a time to spend with family and friends.

Now I recall the conversations with my brother and sister and think about just how much the meaning of Christmas has changed to me. They are having a grand time and I was so bored that I drove around hoping a Best Buy would be open so I could check out the after-Christmas sales for a DVR . As I write this, my other brother is restlessly walking around the living room saying to me, “We have to go out! C’mon its Christmas!”. He even asked the fish if they really knew what Christmas is about (maybe if he bought them a different brand of fish flakes or freeze dried worms they might get the hint). Somehow the word Christmas doesn’t stir up any emotion in me anymore.

Anyhow, I did a google search on Christmas celebrations in Africa and this is what I found;

From Santa’s Net

On the west coast of Africa, in Liberia, most homes have an oil palm for a Christmas tree, which is decorated with bells. On Christmas morning, people are woken up by carols. Presents such as cotton cloth, soap, sweets, pencils, and books are exchanged. Also in the morning a church service is held in which the Christmas scene is enacted and hymns and carols are sung. Dinner is eaten outdoors with everyone sitting in a circle to share the meal of rice, beef and biscuits. Games are played in the afternoon, and at night fireworks light up the sky.

From Christmas World;

In Congo in Africa, a group is designated just to prepare the annual Christmas pageant. In the Christmas morning, African people and groups of carolers walk around the village and sing Christmas carols. They then go to home to wear festive clothes and take love offerings for Jesus to the special service that is held at the house of worship. In the church, the birthday of Jesus is celebrated and people keep their gifts upon the raised platform near the Communion table. After the service, people invite friends to Christmas dinners arranged in front of their homes.

This website has an extensive article on Christmas in Ethiopia:

Ethiopia is in the eastern part of Africa, west of Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Its other neighbors are Kenya and The Sudan.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations, having been converted in 330 A.D. Ganna , or Christmas, is celebrated on January 7 in accordance with the calendar of the Coptic Church. Leading up to Christmas is a 40 day period of fasting and spiritual preparation that ends when everyone attends a Christmas morning Mass. It’s a very bright ceremony since it is customary to wear white to the Mass.

Following ancient tradition, each person enters the church carrying a candle which they light when they get inside. After circling the inside of the church three times they take their place and stand (there are no seats in Ethiopian churches) for what is usually a three hour service.

Christmas is a religious day and a family day where little thought is given to commercial aspects of the holiday.

The food for Christmas dinner includes injera, a sourdough pancake bread that is easily cooked over an open fire. Doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, is usually the main course. Bits of injera are broken off to scoop up the stew and other parts of the feast.

Gift-giving is an insignificant part of the Christmas celebration however young children often receive clothing and sometimes a small toy.

The season continues through Timket or Epiphany, a three-day holiday that begins two weeks after Christmas to celebrate the baptism of Jesus and St. Michael. On that occasion, children walk in a ceremonial parade wearing crowns and robes while turban-wearing priests carry embroidered umbrellas. Percussive music for the parade is played on the sistrum, a rattle like instrument shaped like a pear. It has small metal disks that make a tinkling sound when shaken.

originally published December 25, 2008