This is an updated version of an article posted on December 11, 2011.
Now that the holidays are in full swing, we thought we’d take a look at how different countries in Africa celebrate Christmas. Christianity has been on the continent since the middle of the first century, and approximately 350 million Africans are Christian — so, they’ve had a lot of time to develop their own unique holiday traditions, like masquerade parties and dining al fresco. Here’s a roundup of the most interesting ones that we’ve found:
Ethiopian depiction of the birth of Christ
If you’re spending Christmas in Ethiopia this year, you’ll have to wait a little longer than December 25, as most people follow the ancient Julian calendar and celebrate the holiday on January 7. Traditionally referred to as Ganna, an Ethiopian Christmas typically begins with a day of fasting, followed by church services and a feast that includes stew, vegetables and sourdough bread. Though most friends and families do not exchange gifts, communities gather to play games and sports, and enjoy the festivities together before returning to work.
Children dress up for a Christmas play in Ghana. Photo credit: Skinny Gourmet.
Christmas in Ghana is a well-deserved break, coinciding with the end of the cocoa harvest and beginning on December 1, four weeks before Christmas. Families decorate their homes and neighborhoods like we do here in the US, using lights, candles and sparkly ornaments. For most Ghanaians, it’s just the beginning. On Christmas Day, things really kick into full swing, starting with a family meal –- usually consisting of goat, vegetables and soup –- and followed by a church service for the whole community and a colorful holiday parade. Read more about Christmas in Ghana on Rev. Peter Adotey’s website.
Watch out – the “devil” is coming to town – if you’re in Liberia. Photo credit: TLC Africa.
Santa who? In Liberia, you’re more likely to see Old Man Bayka, the county “devil” who – instead of giving presents, walks up and down the street begging for them on Christmas Day! And instead of hearing the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting, expect to hear Liberians say “My Christmas on you.” It’s basically a saying that means “please give me something nice for Christmas.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo
Children getting ready for a Christmas play in the DRC. Photo credit: Andrea Frazzetta.
Christmas Eve is very important. Churches host big musical evenings (many churches have at least five or six choirs) and a nativity play. These plays last a very long time, starting at the beginning of the evening with the creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the story of King Herod killing the baby boys. On Christmas day, most families try to have a better meal than usual. If they can afford it, they will have some meat (normally chicken or pork). The rest of the day is spent quietly, maybe sleeping after a busy and late night on Christmas Eve. For more on Christmas in the DRC, go here and here.
From ONE member Ola Ope: “In Nigeria, we believe in Father Christmas, our version of Santa, and we light up these things we call knockouts and banga, which are like fire crackers. We always spend all the money we get/have and we cook and share food in the neighborhood.”
Other areas in western Africa also have some pretty cool traditions. In Sierra Leone and much of Gambia, for example, towns and villages celebrate with masquerade parties, extending the celebration beyond the faith community to include the whole town or village in the holiday spirit. As much a social event as it is a religious one, Christmas across the region brings friends and family together for food, sport and gifts.
Do you celebrate the holidays with any African traditions? Share your comments below. And perhaps you can incorporate some of these customs into your own celebrations this year.