Then and now: The evolution of Christmas festivities

Christmas décor is what welcomes you in public places. In banking halls, offices, supermarkets and restaurants, well-lit Christmas trees donned with twinkling red, green and gold lights welcome you. Sounds of Christmas songs in malls and shops fill the air across the city of Kigali.

Christmas décor is what welcomes you in public places. In banking halls, offices, supermarkets and restaurants, well-lit Christmas trees donned with twinkling red, green and gold lights welcome you. Sounds of Christmas songs in malls and shops fill the air across the city of Kigali.

 A Santa costume seller. Children are fond of Father Christmas. 

You can’t miss the aura and feel of the current Christmas mood as Christians brace for the day when Jesus Christ was born. The ongoing Christmas cantata at Christian Life Assembly is the talk of town. 


Back in the day, it was a different scenario. Christmas was not celebrated with pomp and merrymaking like it is today. For many, it was business as usual during the Christmas season.


“In the past, Christmas wasn’t such a big deal. People would go to church and later go home to a quiet family get together,” says 35-year-old Jovia Umutoni.
Umutoni notes that over the years, there has been a significant shift in how Rwandans celebrate during the festive season. Rwandans are now more enthusiastic about the festive season.


So what explains this new trend where many will dine, wine and spend on the luxuries of life with ease?

“It has alot to do with development and modernity,” remarks Joseph Kabera a businessman in the city centre. Kabera says that with development comes modernity and as people modernise, their income levels improve and so is their taste and preferences.

He recalls that back in the day, Kigali didn’t have the current skyline which is characterised by sky hugging modern buildings. With nice facilities in place like five star hotels and recreational centres dotting Kigali and the country side, people have options to celebrate any holiday not just Christmas.

“It is part of the transformation that Rwanda has experienced over the years. People are happy, their income levels have improved and they can afford to celebrate on such days like Christmas,” Kabera observed.

A man dressed as Santa plays with a child inside T2000 supermarket in Kigali. (Timothy Kisambira)

Indeed, a walk around Kigali city will bring you face to face with this new trend. Everyone is doing last minute shopping for Christmas. Several events are being advertised targeting Christmas and for the business people, it is a bumper sale. From musicians, comedians and hotels, several activities are lined up for the festive season.

Diane Ishimwe, a resident of Kimironko says that this new way of celebrating Christmas came only a few years back. “Some years back, people mostly concentrated on celebrating the New Year, so even though the momentum for Christmas is picking up, some people still wait for the New Year to have a real celebration,” she says.

Ishimwe, however, commends this evolution saying that it shows that Rwandans are happier people today.

Moses Musoke is a Ugandan who has lived in Rwanda for 15 years. He says that back in the day, most people would travel out of Kigali to other cities like Kampala and Nairobi to celebrate the Christmas festivities.

But today people travel from other countries from as far as Europe to spend Christmas in Kigali. The country now provides an ideal package for a dream holiday, says Musoke.

Eric Mugisha, an IT specialist, echoes a similar view that the excitement about Christmas celebrations has a lot to do with the vibrancy of the economy.

“If you look at most developed economies, festivities like Christmas are synonymous with extravagant spending. This is what is happening in Rwanda as the country continues to develop at a fast rate,” remarked Mugisha.

Chantal Nzaramba, a shop attendant, says that how Christmas is celebrated today is far better than how it was in the past; she says that today, people eagerly wait for the big day because a lot of fun awaits them.

“Celebrating the big day is very exciting; it’s no longer the dull day it used to be. People actually decorate and seriously party till dawn which is a really good way of unwinding after a long year of hard work,” Nzaramba says.

Robert Kabera, a graduate, shares a similar view, saying that these changes couldn’t make him happier because Christmas in Rwanda was boring back in time.

Children unwrap gifts. 

How it was done back in the day

Judith Mukashema, a 59-year-old teacher at Gashonga Primary School in Rusizi, explains that back in the day, families would come together on the eve of Christmas, children would go to the stream in search for clay that was used to mould sculptures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the decorations were put in the compound.

“Parents would sit with their children and tell them stories of Mary and Joseph, about the birth of the Saviour. They drank and feasted and after attended festivals organised at churches,” Mukashema recalls.

And on Christmas, it was mainly attending mass and later returning home for the much-anticipated delicious meals prepared for the celebration.

Just like it is with other African societies, activities back in the day were done communally, this included celebrating Christmas where families would cook and feast and later meet in town centres for communal celebrations.

But for oldtimers like Francis Mugisha, nothing can beat the old way of Christmas celebration in villages.

“In villages, that is where people actually have real fun. Christians go to church on Christmas Eve and wait for the big day to arrive. On D-day, they wake up and prepare different dishes. What makes it fun is the cooking. And the way they sit down and tell various stories while children play in the open. Perhaps this explains why despite the excitement in towns, much travel to the village to celebrate the festive season.

Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

You want to chat directly with us? Send us a message on WhatsApp at +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News