“And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time The greatest gift they'll get this year is life… Do they know it's Christmas time at all?”
Some of you might be familiar with the 1984 Christmas anthem titled above. It was performed by Band Aid, a collection of British/Irish singers that came together to record the song, to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine going on at the time. Much like “Heal the World”, it touched the hearts of many and became a feel-good sing-along featured in many movies and series- lovely, right? The lyrics like the one featured above, perpetuated the Western narrative of Africa being a fruitless wasteland swarming with people too destitute to even notice when the holidays come around. We at WAS have decided that the best way to counter misinformation and stereotypes is to spread the truth- which is that African countries are bursting with life and culture; they-we- do know it’s Christmas, and in this article, we will delve into some of the countries’ traditions and culture regarding the festive season.
Traditions and Culture
“Detty” December, Nigeria
For Nigerians, nothing beats December in Lagos, when all the IJGBs (“I Just Got Back”s; a semi-endearing term for young Nigerians studying abroad) come back home for the holidays. Due to this influx of returnees, December is seen as the best time to throw weddings and other ‘owambe’s (parties), making the month chock-full of celebrations. Upon arrival, though, the first order of business is to secure your Christmas Sunday outfit- a trip to the tailor is booked, measurements taken, and a design is shared with tightly crossed fingers in hopes that the dress or men’s agbada is gotten right for the upcoming church service. Alongside the ex-pats, the December season also sees the homecoming of Nigeria’s beloved artists, such as Wizkid, Davido, Fireboy DML, etc., ready to perform throughout the month. This endless sea of concerts and parties has seeped into the very culture in Lagos, becoming a phenomenon, that makes Lagos the “Centre of Enjoyment” during the holiday season. Needless to say, December is the best time to be in Lagos, with the Christmas festivities spanning across the whole month and being a time to reconnect, eat fantastic food, and -most importantly- “chop life”.
This is the name for Christmas in Uganda, East Africa, where the focus is on spending quality time with family and the larger community, especially that of the church. A large component of the celebrations is the feast that takes place on Christmas Day, for which preparations begin on December 24th, the evening of which many recall watching their mothers mash ‘matooke’ and fry beef in the kitchen. The main feast entails slaughtering and cooking a goat or chicken to either enjoy with family or make a huge spread for the wider community in the church. A common joke during the season is that Christmas isn’t celebrated, it is ‘eaten’ by virtue of the numerous dishes prepared for the celebration. The church feast is open to all, and the poor get a chance to fill their bellies and fellowship with the community. This season is therefore a time to give back and bond with other members of society while celebrating the birth of Christ.
Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt
Like the other North African countries, Egypt is predominantly Muslim, with 90% of its Christian population belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which follows the Coptic calendar. Christmas is therefore celebrated on the 7th of January, making it the official national holiday for Christmas in Egypt. One of the traditions in this denomination is the ‘Holy Nativity Fast’, in which the members adhere to a vegan diet, cutting out all animal meat and produce in the 43 days leading to Christmas Day, or Advent. Then on Coptic Christmas Eve (January 6th), the church holds a special vigil service, usually running from about 10 pm to just after midnight. This is a time of worship and connecting with family and friends. After returning home, a large feast, or ‘Iftar’ is thrown to break the fast and the people celebrate with dancing, music, and food, including a popular lamb dish called ‘fatta’ and a holiday cookie-like dessert called Kahk.
‘Frohe Weihnachten!’ and ‘Geseënde Kersfees!’, Namibia
Namibia was a former German colony, so their culture is heavily influenced by German customs, including Christmas celebrations. Part of this is St Nicholas’ Day, held on the 6th of January, on which parties are held in schools with children expecting a visit and gifts from the icon. The holiday season involves typical Eurocentric activities, but with a Namibian twist. For instance, Christmas trees are usually in the form of a thorn bush, rather than an evergreen and light shows feature Namibian animals like elephants, rather than snowmen. The main meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, which is followed by a midnight mass service going into December 25th. For the Afrikaans- speakers the meal is usually a barbeque, known a ‘Braai’, which is common in Southern Africa and German-style cookies are present. Namibian Christmases thus reflect the unique mix of cultures in the country, making for a lovely season.