For many people, Africa is synonymous with arid deserts and tropical jungles; hardly compatible with northern hemisphere ideas of Christmas. And yet, Christmas is celebrated throughout the continent by Christian communities both large and small. Customs, traditions, and even the date of the holiday differ from country to country but the religious foundation of the celebration remains the same, unifying people from all walks of life and a myriad different cultures.
Christianity in Africa
The history of Christianity in Africa dates back to the 1st century AD, when Egyptian converts founded some of the earliest Christian communities in the world. Some experts believe that Christianity spread to North Africa before it arrived in Northern Europe. Along with Islam, it is one of the two most widely practiced religions on the African continent. In 2018, research from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity showed that there are approximately 631 million Christians living in Africa, more than any other continent. The African country with the highest percentage of Christians is Zambia with 95.5 percent, followed by the Seychelles and Rwanda.
Even in some of Africa's predominantly Muslim countries, Christmas is still recognized as a secular celebration. In the West African nation of Senegal, Islam is the main religion; and yet Christmas is designated as a national holiday along with Easter, the end of Ramadan, and Prophet Mohammed's birthday. This Mail & Guardian article shows how Senegalese Muslims and Christians have chosen to unofficially celebrate each other's holidays, laying the foundation for the country's renowned atmosphere of religious tolerance.
On Christmas Day carols are sung from Ghana to South Africa. Meats are roasted, gifts are exchanged, and people travel far and wide to visit family. However, in many countries the celebration is very different than it is in North America or Europe. Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar. This means that although they celebrate on December 25, that date usually translates to January 7 on the Gregorian calendar. Kwanzaa (the celebration of African heritage observed in the United States and often associated with the festive season) is not celebrated in Africa.
The other significant difference is the weather. In southern hemisphere countries December represents the height of summer; which is why a typical Christmas Day in places like South Africa often involves beach trips, sunbathing sessions, and eating al fresco. Even in the northern half of the continent, you have very little chance of enjoying a white Christmas (unless you're in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco). Ironically, Christmas paraphernalia including cards, wrapping paper, and decorations still use traditional motifs including snowmen and reindeer.
Church Services and Caroling
Going to church is usually the main focus of Christmas celebrations in Africa. Nativity scenes are played out, carols are sung and in some cases dances are performed.
In Malawi, groups of young children go door-to-door to perform dances and Christmas songs to the accompaniment of homemade instruments. They receive small cash donations in return, in much the same way that Western children do when caroling. In many countries, processions take place after a church service held on Christmas Eve. These are often joyous occasions of music and dance. In The Gambia, for example, people parade with large lanterns called fanals, made in the shape of boats or houses. Every country has its own unique celebrations no matter how small its Christian population.
Christmas dinner is a key part of the festive ritual in Africa. In most countries, Christmas is a public holiday and people make the most of the opportunity to visit family and friends. In East Africa, goats are purchased at the local market for roasting on Christmas Day. In South Africa, families typically braai; or salute their colonial British heritage with a traditional Christmas dinner complete with paper hats, mince pies, and turkey. In Ghana, Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu and okra soup; and in Liberia rice, beef, and biscuits are the order of the day.
Those who can afford it will generally give gifts at Christmas, although the holiday is not nearly as commercial in Africa as it is in Europe or North America. The emphasis is more on the religious celebration of the birth of Jesus than it is on gift giving. The most common gift bought at Christmas is new clothes, usually intended to be worn to church. In rural Africa, few people can afford frivolous gifts or toys, and in any case, there are not many places to buy them. Therefore, if gifts are exchanged in poorer communities they usually take the form of school books, soap, cloth, candles, and other practical goods.
Decorating shop fronts, trees, churches, and homes is common throughout Christian communities in Africa. You may see fake snow decorating store fronts in Nairobi, palm trees laden with candles in Ghana, or oil palms loaded with bells in Liberia. Of course, the evergreen firs and pines favored in North America and Europe are hard to come by in Africa, so Christmas trees are usually replaced by native or synthetic alternatives.
How to Say Happy Christmas in Africa
In Akan (Ghana): Afishapa
In Shona (Zimbabwe): Muve neKisimusi
In Afrikaans (South Africa): Geseënde Kersfees
In Zulu (South Africa): Sinifisela Ukhisimusi Omuhle
In Swazi (Swaziland): Sinifisela Khisimusi Lomuhle
In Sotho (Lesotho): Matswalo a Morena a Mabotse
In Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya): Kuwa na Krismasi njema
In Amharic (Ethiopia): Melkam Yelidet Beaal
In Egyptian Arabic (Egypt): Colo sana wintom tiebeen
In Yoruba (Nigeria): E ku odun, e hu iye' dun
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on November 7 2019.