In the UK we usually associate Christmas with family, eating and drinking (often to excess!), giving presents, Father Christmas and a Christmas tree. But how is the tradition celebrated in West Africa, a region of the World where Christianity is at its freshest, where missionaries have only been preaching for about 150 years?West Africa is a culturally diverse region; comprised of 16 countries, where Islam and Christianity dominate thousands of different tribes speaking hundreds of different languages. Therefore it is unsurprising that Christmas is celebrated in a multitude of different and colourful ways. West Africa is a very religious place. Belief is central to every household whether it is for Allah, Jehovah, Jesus, or the multitude of gods founds in the more animistic religions. Regardless of deity many have been taking Christmas up as an annual celebration where prayer, family, parties and merrymaking play an important role.
All over West Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon, Nigeria to Sierra Leone, parties of different sizes and significances are initiated on either the 24th or 25th December. Even in the poorer countries, an effort is made by all to carry out the tradition and join the celebrations.
According to Afrol News, Sierra Leonean celebrations include partying and ancient local traditions. Like in most countries outside Africa, pre-Christian traditions and popular costumes have been mixed with religious sermons, making the Sierra Leonean yuletide quite unique. Ancient and spectacular masquerades and masking ceremonies now play a major part in Christmas celebrations in Freetown, where the majority of people participate in the colourful party. In the cities, the police musical bands and other bands play Christmas songs in the streets during all December, and nobody escapes the yuletide feeling.
Further North, in Senegal, dominated at 95 percent by the Islamic religion, but with a minority of Christians around Dakar and Casamance in the South, the atmosphere of Christmas is still present.
I remember being in Dakar a week before Christmas, and the local petrol stations and shops had paintings of Christmas trees, Father Christmas and snow on the windows and walls. Decorations were everywhere, and people were greeting me with "Merry Christmas". Maybe the reason for this is because of the increasing presence of televisions in the wealthier households where the most popular programmes are either dubbed American or French sit-coms where Christmas is the main theme during the end of the year. I also heard that even the Islam practicing households hand out gifts on the 24th and 25th of December.
Nigeria, on the other hand, is a country where Christmas is one of, or even maybe the most important event of the year on the festivity calendar because of the high concentration of Christian practitioners.
Taiwo, our local expert for Nigeria, explains how festivities are carried out in his home country:
“Christmas is a unique festival in Nigeria unlike any other part of the world. Christmas Day is a public holiday that is celebrated mainly in the southern and eastern parts of Nigeria.
Nigerians have special traditions they employ to celebrate Christmas. Almost everyone goes to church on Christmas Day. Weeks before the day, people buy lots of hens, turkeys, goats and cows. Children hover around the beasts, taunting and staring at them.
There are feverish preparations for travel, holiday, and exchange of gifts, carolling and all manner of celebrations.
On Christmas Eve, traditional meals are prepared. In Yoruba, such meals usually include Iyan, (pounded yam) eba or amala, served with peppery stewed vegetables. People find themselves eating this same meal three to four times on that day, as they are offered it at every house they visit; and according to Yorùbá customs, it is considered rude to decline to eat when offered food. Other meals include rice served with chicken stew; some families would include a delicacy called Moin-moin; which are blended black eyed beans, mixed with vegetable oil and diced liver, prawns, chicken, fish and beef. The concoction is then wrapped in large leaves and then steamed until cooked.
Another tradition is that of decorating homes (compounds) and churches with both woven and unwoven palm fronds, Christmas trees and Christmas lights. There are the festive jubilations on the streets, the loud crackling of fireworks and luminous starry fire crackers going off, traditional masquerades on stilts parading about and children milling about displaying their best clothes, or Christmas presents.
There are no other celebrations that compare to Christmas festivities in Nigeria, where everyone can personalise their own festival, and one family’s enthusiasm merges with others; both physically and psychologically, creating a universe of fun and bonhomie.”
North West of Nigeria, in Southern Mali, tolerance and community feel dominate the festivities in Dogon country, where Islam, Christianity and African religions exist side by side in most villages. The blending of masquerades from an ancient death cult and traditional songs and dances with midnight masses and a local lamb dish inspired from biblical tales, are common place.
And these are only the tip of the iceberg. West Africa comprises so much diversity that it is impossible to pinpoint every Christmas celebration in the region, however in terms of experiencing them; there is of course the possibility to visit the countries to discover these festivities first hand.
According to a Nigerian blog, “West African rich Christmas traditions even have it in them to become a tourist attraction and should be a serious candidate for Unesco's World Heritage list.” So maybe some of the tour operators in West Africa could think about incorporating these cultural elements into some of their tours, as long as the local communities benefit economically and the destinations heritages are respected.