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Celebrating Holiday Traditions in East Africa

Dec 22, 2020

In the villages of rural East Africa, Christmas really isn’t that different. Sure, celebrating in seventy-degree temperatures, it might feel a little different. Gathering around the table for traditional matooke, it might taste a little different, but the holiday as a time of tradition and togetherness remains constant.   With the majority of the populations Christian in Uganda (82%), Tanzania (61%), and Kenya (70%), Christmas is widely celebrated in East Africa. It is a season anticipated the whole year through, commemorated with family, prayer, and good food…so much good food. Even for those who do not celebrate the religious aspect of the season, the holiday spirit draws all together.

Holiday Traditions in Uganda

Even before the first day of December dawns, Christmas is already on the minds of many Ugandans. In the bustling city centers, Christmas songs remind all that the season is near. At home, holiday movies begin their seasonal debut. Those who can, buy artificial Christmas trees to decorate. Others select real trees upon which they drape lights and holiday cheer.

Though the official holiday is December 25, Christmas, or Ssekukulu as it is called in central Uganda, is a grand event where the celebration lasts for days. Beginning in early December, people set to making their holiday plans, hoping to find a deal out of the city before the holiday rate hikes. The Christmas season is a high travel time in Uganda as most people prefer to celebrate the season with family. The cities empty as urban dwellers return to their home villages.

Giving gifts is not a tradition upheld by most Ugandans, but it is common for women and children to purchase new clothes in commemoration of the holiday. The real anticipation builds around the holiday feast. Though meat is not a part of many Ugandans’ daily diet, it is the centerpiece of the Christmas meal. In fact, it is common for families to slaughter a goat or other animal and enjoy the meat for four days leading up to the December 25 celebration. Ugandans young and old look forward to these annual days of feast and meat aplenty. So central is this tradition to the Ugandan holiday celebration that the unlikelihood of meat this holiday season as a result of COVID-19 is the loss most lamented by Asante Africa scholars.

On Christmas day, households begin to stir as early as 4am. Families want to be sure all is prepared so that the meal can begin when church services end. In central Uganda, a traditional meal of matooke, a kind of starchy plantain, is prepared with chicken or beef. Even families that cannot afford both try hard to provide at least one for the holiday. Churches fill to capacity on Christmas morning, opening their doors to the usual crowds and welcoming those rarer only-on-holidays attendees. When the final prayer concludes, families return home to share the much-anticipated Christmas feast and celebrate the holiday together.

“Christmas This Year Will Be Different”

A vaccine may be on the horizon, but COVID-19 is a part of our holiday season this year. In East Africa, where Christmas is much-anticipated and grandly celebrated, families are struggling to make this season bright as they cope with the consequences of a global pandemic .

“Christmas this year will be different compared to other years,” Sharon, a student in Kenya explains. Parents who lost their jobs as a result of COVID confront unique challenges this year as they must decide between keeping Christmas traditions or saving money for their children’s return to school in January. “Parents are in a dilemma whether to celebrate Christmas or save money to buy stationary,” Sharon regrets. Confronting such difficult decisions, the holiday season will indeed be very different this year for many parents and children.

In Uganda, expectations for Christmas have dampened and children have lost the enthusiasm of years past. Isaiah, 15, recalls the festivities his family hosted last year after slaughtering one of their goats. For four days, family and friends gathered to share food and celebration. However, this year, Isaiah knows that his family will not be able to host a similar feast. “We used to eat meat for four days but now we are expecting only one day. Ugandans stopped working because of COVID-19. We used to eat meat. Now we are expecting to eat one kilogram or two of meat because of money.”

A Holiday Feast in Kenya

Like Uganda, Kenya’s urban centers fall quiet during the Christmas season. City dwellers pack their bags and depart for more rural destinations where they will celebrate the holiday with family and friends.

On Christmas Eve or December 24, churches throughout Kenya are packed with men, women, and children, eager to welcome Christmas Day together. Often, during this vigil, or Kesha as it is called in Kenya, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is dramatized to remind audiences of the reason for celebration. At midnight, church bells ring in synchronization to announce the start of the much-anticipated Christmas day and songs of praise echo throughout the village.

The real festivities begin when the church service concludes. Congregants head home to begin preparations for the Christmas Day meal, the focal point of the celebration. In many parts of Kenya, the feast centers around nyama choma or barbequed meat (goat is common, but beef might also be consumed), often accompanied by ugali, a cornmeal starch and staple food in the Kenyan diet. But no matter what is served, the Christmas day meal is a time for family and friends to come together to enjoy each other and bask in the joys of the holiday season.

Holiday Memories in Tanzania

In Tanzania, Christmas is the season for coming together, a time when the demands of school and work are forgotten, if only for a few brief moments, and families gather around to celebrate the holiday and each other. As the days of celebration draw closer, those living and working in Tanzania’s towns travel to villages where family members await their return. Joel, a staff member at Asante Africa, remembers the holidays growing up in a rural Tanzanian village. Watching friends and family arrive from town and jump at the first site of a cow or a goat always sparked a chuckle among Joel and his friends. That they arrived with “pet” dogs only added to his amusement as people in his village kept dogs not for companionship but for security. Despite any differences, however, Joel cherishes his childhood holiday memories. Christmas is a time of “reunion.” It is about “getting together, sharing gifts, eating together, and creating memories.”

Uganda student wearing mask

Justine, another Ugandan teenager and Asante Africa student, echoes Isaiah’s concerns. “This Christmas, we don’t know how it is going to be because of poverty. This year, we got a problem of COVID-19. We used to slaughter a goat but now I don’t know if we will even eat meat because goats were sold during the pandemic to get money. So now, we don’t know what we are going to eat.” Justine laments the other traditions that will be bypassed this year. “We used to go for prayers but most will not go because there is a limit in the age. It means some children are not going and will not attend prayers. We used to go on beaches. We used to go to different towns to see the best artists in Uganda, but now we are not going to see any because people are not allowed to gather in large numbers because of COVID-19.”

WATCH JUSTINE’S VIDEO

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll this year and will take no reprieve this holiday season. So this Christmas, we can be thankful for what we have; we can give what we can; and we can look towards a future of a brighter Christmas.