Although a Western concept, we Africans love Christmas more than any other continent and East Africans are no exception.
Generally speaking, it’s the most important time of the year –a “big” day –yes, the biggest.
In East Africa, Uganda and Kenya lead in as far as the elevation and celebration of this day is concerned. Tanzanians are not very big on Christmas and this is largely due to the heavy Arabic/Islamic influence on the country’s culture.
Burundians celebrate Christmas because, like Ugandans and to some extent Kenyans, they love partying at the first opportunity that presents itself but also because the population is largely Christian.
Rwandans are seemingly the least enthusiastic about the birthday anniversary of Jesus Christ in the region.
In Rwanda, you say Noheli nziza to wish someone a merry Christmas.
Timeless Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, Christmas carols, decoration, even the commercialism that comes with it are relatively new. Even then, the little you will see by way of Christmas displays will mostly be at certain establishments that target a certain crowd, not necessarily the typical ordinary Rwandan.
So in large super markets and high-end hospitality establishments like hotels and coffee shops one will see glimpses of Santa Claus, an artificial Christmas tree, balloons, and twinkling multi-colored lights.
You will also find the mandatory Christmas tree at your bank or other utility service provider like the telecoms, or in the office where you work.
Talking of Christmas trees, the common tree variety used for the purpose around the region is the pine, which is almost non-existent in Rwanda as opposed to its regional compatriots.
As if that is not bad enough, there are more stringent laws governing the cutting down of trees in Rwanda. In Rwanda, the rules are quite clear; that you only reap what you sow; so you only harvest trees that you planted.
To harvest trees in Rwanda, one actually has to apply for a permit, plant trees for a stated purpose, after which one can then harvest them. This means that few people are willing to plant pine for commercial purposes, seeing as their demand only comes once in a year.
Around the year 2006, the government actually banned the cutting down of trees, especially pine and banana stems for decorative purposes. Yet Christmas trees form a large part of the Christmas tradition elsewhere in the region and in the world.
To most Africans, this day has got little to do with its religious significance and everything to do with over indulgence in food and drink, and general merrymaking. Yet Rwanda has a somewhat covert eating culture in which food and eating are regarded as a personal/private matter.
Also, much of the season’s hype is usually fanned by the twin forces of commercialism and consumerism, but Rwanda is still relatively less commercialized in comparison to places like Uganda and Kenya.
So Rwandans attach much more importance to New Year’s Day celebrations instead.
In Uganda, Christmas is called Sekukkulu in Luganda, the largest ethnic grouping in the country. It is a term that connotes the fact that the day is ‘big’. One wishes another person a merry Christmas by saying Sekukkulu ennungi.
For most Ugandans, old and young, the Christmas season begins when one starts to hear local Christmas songs on the radio and in markets and at every street corner.
One name that has come to be synonymous with Christmas music and indeed Christmas itself in Uganda is Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, the iconic Ugandan musician who succumbed to AIDS in 1989 aged 38.
Lutaaya is credited with being the first prominent Ugandan to give a human face to AIDS by declaring he was positive at a time when the subject was still taboo in Africa.
Although he graced the Ugandan music scene in the 1960s and 1970s, timeless Christmas classics are still the most played on radio, public transport, in bars and in people’s homes every festive season to this day.
His Christmas Album, produced in 1986 remains his most popular album to date and forms part of a strong Christmas tradition in Uganda. It included classics such as "Tumusiinze", "Gloria", "Merry Christmas, Oh Happy New Year", "Azaalidwa", and "Zuukuka" among others.
Ugandans also celebrate Christmas by hiking the prices of almost everything, beginning with transport fares. Where usually you paid Rwf 8,000 bus fare, you are now likely to pay double or three times that amount just because it’s Christmas. Because Christmas means over-indulging in meat to most Ugandans, the butcheries and abattoirs also push their prices up.
And just like in Kenya, one thing that will signal Christmas is around the corner is when the police start to ‘advise’ the public to take extra precaution on their lives and property as crime rates dramatically shoot up.
In Uganda, it’s common for many employers to receive their December salary on December 15th or thereabouts, and immediately the partying and binge drinking will begin, only to stop in the second week of January depending on the depth of one’s pockets and the size of their social circle.
In Kenya, people say Krismas njema to mean Merry Christmas. The fanfare, and chaotic commercialism synonymous with the season in Uganda is also alive in this country. If there is one thing the Kenyans are known for, it’s their penchant for African barbecue meats, which they fondly call nyama choma (Swahili for roast meat). Nyama choma is considered a special delicacy in Kenya, never to be absent from any serious merrymaking session.
Whatever else happens in-between is the typical African Christmas story that one is bound to find in any other African country.
Churches will be full to the brim because on this day, pagans, atheists, lukewarm Christians and everybody else who usually did not attend church now sees the need to do so.
In Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania, just like the rest of sub-saharan Africa, Christmas is a time for family reunion. People will travel en masse from cities and urban centers back to the villages where a large part of the family tree usually lives. With more urbanization, more families are increasingly spending the season in cities though.
This is very important because this is usually the only time when large families and extended families converge in one place. When it comes to large families getting together, not even burial of a relative can rival Christmas in making this happen.
Usually people try to be home a day or two before Christmas so they can contribute to preparations – clearing bushes, sprucing up the house, brewing local beer, buying food (read meats) for the feast ahead.
People’s homes and places of worship will be draped in multi-colored balloons, X-mas trees, ribbons, cotton wool and cards, candy, sweets, twinkling multicolored lights … name it.
Many of the devout Christians will go for the midnight church service on the Eve of Christmas, popularly known as X-mas carols, although this may also include singing of Christmas hymns, poems, dances, and plays, especially re-enactment of the nativity scene.
Going for midnight prayers on December 24th ensures that there’s ample time to prepare for and enjoy the feast that awaits. For most, after this service, they immediately head home and the party is soon underway –beginning with preparation of the grand X-mas lunch. Chicken, goats, sheep and cows will be slaughtered and roasted on this day. Some of it will be parceled out and delivered to relatives and neighbors.
Boxing Day is also a public holiday and although it’s supposed to be about exchanging gifts, in East Africa it’s more about sleeping off the previous day’s hangover, finishing off remnants of the X-mas goodies, which is usually drinking the left over beer, and wondering where all the money one had stashed for the festive season went in just one day.