As my family celebrates Christmas in Minnesota this year (the second time out of the last twelve Christmases), I was thinking about the variety of ways people commemorate this holiday. And not just the traditions but the seasons, the weather, the food, the songs, the meanings. They all loosely center on the birth of Jesus Christ, but people well outside Christian traditions also celebrate. From atheists in Minnesota to Muslims in Djibouti, I have seen Christmas trees and Christmas cookies and gift exchanges in many different homes.
In Djibouti we have a five-foot tall fake tree, hang stockings from a line in front of our air conditioner, and sweat through the celebration at church even though it is the coolest night of the year. We also plan a post-Christmas trip to the beach to camp and swim with whale sharks. Our peanut butter blossom cookies have chunks of chocolate in place of chocolate kisses and the chocolate melts in the heat.
In Minnesota our stockings are hung along the staircase, we wrap up in sweaters and slippers and wear blankets around our arms like shawls, or wrap them around our waists like a Djiboutian macwiis (wrap around). We suck down hot chocolate and coffee and sing Christmas carols in English.
These traditions, that feel so natural and holiday-ish, got me thinking about other Christmas traditions across Africa. What would we be doing if we lived in Senegal? Ghana? South Africa? Which traditions seem transcendent and cross cultures? The answer to that is exactly what I expected it to be: food and family.
Here are traditions, some unique and some more universal, that people in ten African countries associate with Christmas.
Christmas Across Africa 1 of 12
Egypt 2 of 12
According to the New Testament, the holy family spent time in Egypt after the birth of Jesus. Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas on January 7 and fast for 43 days leading up to Christmas, though many people limit their fast to just the final week. Christmas lights hang in the streets, people put up real or fake trees, and appears to have a much smaller commercial emphasis than Christmas in the US. The holiday culminates with a special church service. Copts are not the only Egyptians to celebrate Christmas, there are other Christian sects and Muslims also often enter into various aspects of the holiday.
South Africa 3 of 12
South Africa In South Africa, Christmas occurs in the summer. School is on holiday and caroling, candlelit Christmas Eve services, and Christmas morning church services are popular. Families put up trees and children often leave a stocking out for Santa to fill. Common food includes turkey, duck, roast beef, rice, and sweets.
Ethiopia 4 of 12
Ethiopians also celebrate Christmas on January 7. On Christmas Eve pilgrims come to Addis Ababa, the capital, in preparation for the holiday. They pray and chant throughout the evening and the next day form a procession on the way to a church service. After services, the day is spent dancing, praying, and feasting.
Ghana 5 of 12
Ghana In Ghana home Christmas decorations have not been the custom but are increasingly common among the wealthy and sometimes include fake trees. Gift giving is part of the holiday tradition. "Christmas with most Ghanaian Christian families is sort of what you would expect. Home decorations are uncommon but increasingly popular with the wealthy, including fake Christmas trees and bright sparkly garlands. Mothers and grandmothers gather in the kitchen and prepare a spread of traditional Ghanaian foods, which might include the spicy Jollof rice with fish, rich peanut soup with goat meat, boiled west African "yams" with a spicy spinach sauce, or even fried rice and chicken."
Senegal 6 of 12
Senegal In Senegal many Muslims also celebrate Christmas. Muslims believe in the prophethood of Jesus but don't generally commemorate the day of his birth. But, who doesn't love a chance to give and receive gifts, to enjoy a family day of feasting? And so lights are strung through the streets, there are Christmas trees, inflatable Santas, and a general holiday spirit.
Sierra Leone 7 of 12
Sierra Leone Christmas in Sierra Leone is not the snowy, cold holiday of so many Christmas songs and images. Instead there is the hot dusty winds of harmattan, blowing from across the Sahara. Shops light up with decorative strings of bulbs, boys light off fireworks, and carolers wander through the streets. Church services and feasting mark the day, foods include jollof rice, sweets, soft drinks, and roasted chicken.
Kenya 8 of 12
Kenya Kenya is a majority Christian country and many people travel to their home villages over the break. Traffic heavily increases and many Kenyans talk about the need for safety on the roads, especially during this season. They attend church services where the Christmas story is told and retold, they sing Christmas carols, and feast, commonly on roasted goat.
Uganda 9 of 12
Uganda Santa Claus has not been a traditional part of Christmas in Uganda. People sometimes go caroling together, coming in the middle of the night. Some cities are fully decorated in many colors like gold, purple, and maroon, though also green and red, and some families put up Christmas trees. Even more important than giving gifts, many in Uganda emphasize family togetherness and enjoying the presence of friends.
Eritrea 10 of 12
Eritrea Here, as in Egypt and Ethiopia, Christmas is officially celebrated on January 7 though more and more young people party and exchange gifts on December 25. The day is marked with the ringing of bells from the Cathedral, gift-giving, and decorating with sparkly decorations. Families gather around feasts of sheep or goat, homemade bread, and coffee. They spend the day together and also spend time sharing food with the needy.
Djibouti 11 of 12
Christmas is not an official holiday in Djibouti though many expatriates from Ethiopia, Kenya, France, the US, and other countries are free to celebrate. Lights hang in the streets, often remnants of the Islamic Eid holiday. Chocolate Santas appear in grocery stores and on Christmas day Santa comes to the stores and hands out notebooks or cotton candy to kids. Many Christians attend special Christmas Eve services and spend the following day with family.
Merry Christmas from Africa 12 of 12
Sometimes it snows, sometimes there is dust. Sometimes there is a Santa, sometimes there isn't. Sometimes the stockings are hung from the fireplace with care, sometimes they are hung from the air conditioner with care. No matter the customs, food, or traditions, Merry Christmas to all!