10 Christmas traditions you’ll only find in Africa

By , K24 Digital
On Wed, 20 Dec, 2023 03:00 | 4 mins read
People enjoying Christmas meal. PHOTO/Print
People enjoying Christmas meal. PHOTO/Print

With Christians making up almost half of the continent’s population, Christmas is a big deal in Africa. Forget the snow, fir trees and mulled wine.

For almost everyone in the continent, 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

1. Church services and carolling

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. 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!

2. Special 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.

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 children. 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!

4. Christmas not on same day everywhere

While the majority of countries in Africa celebrate Christmas on December 25, it’s not the same everywhere. The Coptic Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia actually celebrate Christmas on January 7, 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.

5. Gift-giving

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 such as 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.

6. Unique 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 such as bells and candles across Africa, while the big stores and hotels usually put up more extravagant decorations like fake snow.

7. Nativity games

As religion plays an important role in the life of Zambian people, during these dates it can’t be missed especially. Many churches in Zambia perform nativity games and have a crib in the church. In addition, a couple of days before Christmas you can hear beautiful carols being sung in the local streets. In Zambia, the festive season is also spent with family. On the morning of December 25, the whole family exchanges gifts, just like the tradition in the UK.

8. Coptic Church traditions

Most Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church and they are the only part of the population who celebrate Christmas. The Coptic Orthodox Church follows the Coptic calendar, so Coptic Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7. The 43 days before Christmas, called Advent, lasts from November 25 to January 6. On Christmas Eve, January 6, Coptic Christians attend a special church service, which normally starts around 10pm and concludes shortly after midnight, but some last until dawn. When the Christmas service ends, they return home to break their fast with big Christmas feasts. All the dishes contain beef, poultry, eggs, and all the other things they didn’t eat during the Advent fast. On Christmas Day, people come together for parties and festivities.

9. Old Man Bayka of Liberia

Santa Claus is not the holiday mascot in some African countries. In Liberia, Old Man Bayka is the mascot for the holiday season. And unlike his Western counterpart, he doesn’t give presents; he instead goes around the streets begging for gifts on Christmas morning. “My Christmas on you” is the greeting used in Liberia in place of the usual “Merry Christmas.”

10. The Fanal parade

The carnival of Fanal parade is an event held in Gambia. The people are seen after church services with fanals, a small ship made of paper, and bamboo sticks usually decorated with candles and lights on the inside. These fanals are used to collect donations from households in the neighbourhood. Christmas in Africa is usually not characterized by presents. While there might be an exchange of gifts, the Africans celebrate Christmas by wearing new clothes and clothing items and feasting with family.

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