Christmas Traditions in Africa

Posted by Jessi Ashanti on



West and Central Africa is the world’s densest region when it comes to cultural diversity. This is slowly becoming clear when it comes to Christmas traditions. While new traditions spring up every year, the culture of Santa Claus has not threatened this rich variety. Perhaps someday, these traditions will make West Africa a holiday tourist attraction. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in pre Christian cultures like the masquerades in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. 


Egyptian Orthodox Christians or Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. According to their calendar it is the 29th day of the Coptic month of “Kiohk” or “Khiahk”. They fast 43 days before Christmas. This is called “Lent fasting”. During this period they do not eat meat, fish, milk and eggs. 
After church service people return to their home and have a special meal called “fatta” The meal usually contains meat and rice. On Christmas day families visit their friends and neighbors. 



Like in Egypt,  most Ethiopian people follow the ancient Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7th . Traditionally referred to as Ganna, an Ethiopian Christmas typically begins with a day of fasting followed by church services and feast that includes stew, vegetables and sourdough bread. At dawn of Ganna people traditionally weawhite cotton clothes called “Shamma” with colorful stripes at its ends. Though most friends and families do not exchange gifts, communities gather to play games and sports, and enjoy the festivities together. 



Christmas in Ghana coincides with the end of the cocoa harvest and beginon December 1st , four weeks before Christmas. Due to the cocoa harvest it is a time of wealth. Everyone returns home from wherever they might be such as farms or mines. Families decorate their homes and neighborhoods just like in the US, using lights, candles and ornaments. On Christmas day, things really kick into full swing, starting with a family meal – usually consisting of goat, vegetables and soup or stew with fufu – followed by a church service which includes lots of dancing and a nativity play for the whole community and a colorful holiday parade. 

A special and unique Christmas tradition in Ghana is the honoring of midwives, based on a local legend about Anna, who is said to have assisted in the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and saved his life from a jealous Judean king. Anna’s story is told every Christmas in Ghana. 



In Cote d’ivoire Christmas celebrations mostly focus on the religious aspects of the holiday. The commercialization is often absent.  
Midnight mass is central to the Christmas celebration.  

In Abidjan, Christmas is mostly a time when Ivorian youth indulge in partying and dancing at bars without roofs called maquis.  

On the 25th and on January 1st , families gather at the home of an elder to eat and drink. 



Religious sermons dominate Christmas celebrations in Benin. Some villages include dancing and masquerade parties. 



Over 40% of the people in Togo are Christians. French Christmas traditions are common. Unlike most other West African countries, Santa Claus and Christmas trees have become part of the tradition. Only the Christmas dishes remain Togolese



In many Burkina Faso villages, children mix clay, straw and water to build masterpieces outside their compounds, illustrating the biblical theme of the crib. The nativity scenes are highlights in the villages and stand until the rain washes them away, often close to Easter. 


In sierra Leone, celebrations are lively and partying is mixed with ancient traditions. Pre Christianity traditionand popular costumes have been mixed with religious sermons, making the Sierra Leonean Christmas a unique celebration. Spectacular and ancient masquerades and masking ceremonies now play a major part in the festivities in Freetown.  

Christmas day is a time for family and friends. Excellent dishes are prepared and presents are exchanged. Even the country’s Muslim president once noted that Christmas is a time for giving and sharing with others whatever little one has. 


Instead of Santa Claus, In Liberia you are more likely to see Old man Bayka, the country 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” Cotton cloth, soap, sweets, pencils and books are the popular Christmas presents, which are exchanged amongst people. A church service is held in the morning . The festive dinner, consisting of a meal of rice, beef and biscuits, is eaten in the outdoors. Games are played in the afternoon and at night fireworks light up the sky 


Christmas Eve is very important in the democratic republic of Congo. 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. 

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). 



Christmas is a family affair in Kenya. The members get together in this festive occasion to enjoy a traditional Christmas meal. Nyama choma (roast goat meat) and Tuskers beer is flavor of the season in this East African country. The goat is eaten hot from the charcoal grill.  


One of the most popular Christmas traditions in Nigeria is the decorating of homes and churches with palm fronds. According to an old belief palm fronds symbolize peace and harmony during Christmas season. Apart from Christmas carols and midnight mass, people in Nigeria have the traditional Ekon” play. Groups performing this play, dance from home to home carrying a baby. The baby symbolizes the birth of Jesus Christ. Home owners accept the doll and give presents to the group. Thenthe doll is returned to the group which continues their “journey” 


Because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, Christmas comes in the summer. So there’s a lot of sun and beautiful flowers in full bloom. Going carol singing, on Christmas eve is very popular in towns and cities. And many people go to a Christmas morning church service 

Traditional “fir” Christmas trees are popular and children leave stockings out for Santa Claus on Christmas eve 

The Christmas meal is often eaten outside in the sun and typically consists of bbq or “Braai 

South Africa also has several UK Christmas Dinner traditions such as turkey, duck, roast beef, mince pies or suckling pig with yellow rice and raisins and vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding or a traditional south African desert called Malva 



In the West African nation of Senegal, where 95% of its population is Muslim, Islam is the main religion, and yet Christmas is a national holiday. Senegalese Muslims and Christians have chosen to celebrate each others holidays, laying the foundation for the county’s enviable atmosphere of religious tolerance 


In Guinea, Christians are also strongly outnumbered. Mostly French religious Christmas traditions have been adopted, including Midnight mass, eating local dishes together with family and exchanging gifts. 


In the former Portuguese colony of Guinea Bissau, local Christmas traditions have had time to evolve. In Bissau there is no Christmas eve without “Bacalao”, a plate of dried cod imported all the way from Scandinavia. Prices on the fish skyrocket in Bissau markets before Christmas. 

Unlike most other Catholic dominated West African countries, the 24th of December is when the great family celebrations occur in Guinea Bissau. Clothes are typically given on the 25th . Bissau citizens proudly wear their new clothes on the way to parties. The midnight mass and street parties on the 25th is a time when all citizens participate. Even some of the Muslim majority joins in the street parties, as there is no history of religious tension. 


In Malawi, groups of children go door to door to perform dances and Christmas songs dressed in skirtsmade from leaves and using homemade instruments. They receive a small gift of money in return. 



In Zimbabwe it is tradition for children to bring little presents to children who are in the hospital or for any reason can’t attend church services. On Christmas day people parade with large intricately made lanterns called “Fanals” in the shape of boats or houses and several families in the neighborhood often party together. Adults have a party in one house and children enjoy themselves in another 


In Madagascar, Christmas is the time of mass baptism of children. There is also a tradition of visiting elders and other highly respected people in the community 



Kwanzaa is a seven day festival that celebrates African and African American culture and history. Kwanzaa takes place from 26th December to 1st January.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase 'matunda ya kwanza' which means 'first fruits' in the Swahili language (an Eastern African language spoken in countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe). Kwanzaa is mostly celebrated in the USA

During Kwanzaa a special candle holder called a kinara is used. A kinara hold seven candles, three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right with a black candle in the center. Each night during Kwanzaa a candle is lit. The black, center, candle is lit first and then it alternates between the red and green candles stating with the ones on the outside and moving inwards. This is quite similar to the lighting of the menorah in the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.

The seven days and candles in Kwanzaa represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa (Nguzo Saba):

  • Umoja: Unity - Unity of the family, community, nation and race
  • Kujichagulia: Self-Determination - Being responsible for your own conduct and behaviour
  • Ujima: Collective work and responsibility - Working to Help each other and in the community
  • Ujamaa: Cooperative economics - Working to build shops and businesses
  • Nia: Purpose - Remembering and restoring African and African American cultures, customs and history
  • Kuumba: Creativity - Using creating and your imagination to make communities better
  • Imani: Faith - Believing in people, families, leaders, teachers and the righteousness of the African American struggle

There are also seven symbols used in Kwanzaa. The seven items of often set on a Kwanzaa table, with the kinara, in the house:

  • Mkeka: The Mat - A woven mat made of fabric, raffia, or paper. The other symbols are placed on the Mkeka. It symbolises experiences and foundations.
  • Kikombe cha Umoja: The Unity Cup - Represents family and community. It is filled with water, fruit juice or wine. A little is poured out to remember the ancestors. The cup is share between people and each person takes a sip.
  • Mazao: The Crops - Fruit and vegetables from the harvest. These normally includes bananas, mangoes, peaches, plantains, oranges, or other favorites! They are shared out.
  • Kinara: The Candleholder - It represents the days, and principles of Kwanzaa.
  • Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles - are placed in the kinara. Black, red and green are the colors of the Bendera (African Flag).
  • Muhindi: The Corn - There is one ear of corn of each child in the family. If there are no children in the family, then one ear is used to represent the children in the community. It represents the future and the Native Americans.
  • Zawadi: Gifts - Gifts given to children during Kwanzaa are normally educational, such as a book, dvd or game. There's also a gift reminding them of their African heritage.

There are also sometimes two extra symbols:

  • Bendera: A flag with three horizontal stripes of black, red and green
  • Nguzo Saba Poster: A poster of the seven principles of Kwanzaa

There's also a special greeting used during Kwanzaa in Swahili. It's 'Habari gani' and the reply is the principle for that day. (Umoja on the first day, Kujichagulia on the second and so on.)

The Kwanzaa festival was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. Dr. Karenga wanted a way bring African Americans together and remember their black culture. Harvest or 'first fruit' festivals are celebrated all over Africa. These were celebrations when people would come together and celebrate and give thanks for the good things in their lives and communities.

From these festivals he created Kwanzaa.


"Merry Christmas" in different African languages

In Zulu: ‘UKhisimusi omuhle’ 

In Sesotho: Le be le keresemese e monate 

In Xhosa: krismesi emnandi 

In Akan (Ghana): Afishapa 

Zimbabwe: Merry Kisimusi 

Swahili: Kuwa na Krismasi njema 

Amharic: Melkam Yelidet Beaal 

Egyptian: Colo sana wintom tiebeen 

Yoruba (Naija): E ku odun e hu iye’dun! 


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