Celebrating Christmas in Africa

All African countries share the global tradition of families getting together, however, Africa’s Christmas doesn’t consist of snowmen and giant Christmas trees, but rather lots of sunshine and beautiful flowers. Don’t let the beautiful weather fool you, there is still much to celebrate and it is spectacular!

One year, my family and I spent Christmas in Tanzania, and they had just as many different food celebrations, parties, and gifts as we do in the U.S.! There are over 350 million Christians living in Africa that participate in Christmas activities. The earliest signs of Christian belief were found in Egypt in the 1st century AD, symbolizing the birth of the African God Ra (Osiris). African tree decorating is different from the U.S.; they decorate the tree to send regards to Ra’s birthday celebration, which is the celebration of the winter solstice in some countries.

The history of Christmas according to

Ancient Egyptian beliefs, starts with the God, Osiris, the God of death. Osiris had a brother named Seth, who was jealous of him. One day, Seth killed his brother and he then became king of Egypt. Osiris’ wife, Isis, also had the power of life and death and she decided to look for her husbands body and bring him back to life. She succeeded and they had a son named Horus. His death and resurrection came to symbolize the rising and setting of the sun. They ended up showing Seth mercy, although Seth was still jealous, upset, and now embarrassed. Ancient Egyptians partook in decorating their houses with green leaves of date palms and the leaves remained green all year round, signifying immortality. The leaves were meant to symbol to Egyptians, life over death. The trees were a huge resource for the Egyptians as the fruits were plentiful and provided a lot of nourishment.

The calendar during those times was very different from today. In some Christian churches, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th of every new year, rather than December 25th. The more conservative Christians refer to the Julian Calendar which labels Christmas on December 25 – a date that currently corresponds to the January 7 date used on the Gregorian calendar.

In the Julian calendar, every four years is a leap year, and a leap day is added to the month of February. During that time, February was the last month of the year and the 24th was the leap day. February 30 actually existed at that time! The Julian calendar was used well into the 1900s by some other countries, including North Africa and on Mount Athos.

Right now in Egypt there are about 15% of Christians, making the Christmas feast a very important day in the country. Muslims also celebrate the beginning of the new year in the Gregorian calendar. The customary (orthodox) Christians in Egypt start a vegan fast lasting 43 days from the November 25 to January 7. After the fasting, they make a big meal on Christmas eve celebrated in churches all over Egypt at the same time.

Did you know that they also celebrate Santa Clause? He is known as Papa Noel who is a saint devoted to helping poor people and children. Just like in America, he is loved by Egyptian people. So, it probably isn’t so different from here after all. However, there are many different Christmas traditions in Africa, that plenty of people are starting to flock to during the Christmas season. Although many South African Christmas traditions were instilled by the British during the colonial era, Christmas celebrations in the Northern African region are extremely different from country to country.

When I visited Tanzania for Christmas, I was quite surprised at all the decorations and parties that went on around there. There was a Christmas dinner with a beautiful food selection, wine, games, music and dancing. This wasn’t just for visitors and tourists but locals as well! I learned that families will buy a cow or a goat in January and feed it all the way up until it was time to eat it on Christmas Eve. Villages also brew their own beer to drink with the meat. Church is important there, and everyone dresses up to celebrate with the rest of the community

Despite cultural differences during the Holidays it’s still one big celebration between us all. In Zimbabwe, for many people, Christmas day starts with church and everyone dressed their best. After church, the entire family gathers for a feast and instead of everyone staying home, they go door to door to spend time with family and friends. Another typical tradition is for people to decorate only the main room of their house, using mostly ivy, which is just as important as a Christmas tree. Senegal also celebrates Christmas despite being a Muslim dominated country. Senegal being one of the hottest spots in the world decorates Christmas trees with lights, makes snowmen and cotton snowballs! They even decorate mosques with Christmas trees.

Christmas in Uganda is called Sekukkulu and it is also about family, games, music, and food! Sekukkulu is celebrated on December 25th as well and is one of the special occasions where a traditional dish is prepared locally known as Luwombo.

Gambia will celebrate Christmas as well, throwing a huge Fanal parade where they light fanals (lanterns) with candles. If visiting Gambia, hotels and resorts will accommodate by decorating typical Christmas decorations like tinsel and holly. They will create special dinner menus and host events like live shows, parties, and fireworks. Zambia is also pretty exciting during this time, many churches in Zambia perform nativity games and sing beautiful carols in the local streets. The season is spent with family and on the morning of the 25th of December, the whole family exchanges gifts.

Christmas in Kenya is considered one of the biggest festivities of the year. There are a lot of Christians in Kenya, so they take this celebration pretty seriously. Villagers from all around gather with family to eat, sing and dance. Their typical Christmas meal is meat stew with potatoes and vegetables, chapati or corn cake, as well as goat or cow meat on the grill. In the cities, churches and houses are decorated and Christmas trees, typically cypress trees, are beautifully decorated. Sometimes you can find fake snow at the shopping mall or business buildings and there is also a Santa Clause, but he mostly rides a camel, car, or bicycle.

The common Christmas traditions in Africa will always be going to Church, having a big dinner feast, gifting items or services, and even some community service. Community service isn’t talked about as much but it is part of an African Christmas in Nigeria. Churches organize events to visit orphanages and help families in need and the homeless.

These are just some of the places that celebrate Christmas with their own traditions, but there are lots of other places in Africa. I even recommend spending a holiday season in Africa if you can. See what it is like to enjoy a different country during the holidays.

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