December 25, 2009

Celebrating Christmas across Africa

BBC News website readers have sent in their experiences of Yuletide festivities on the continent.

Here we are enlightened about Orthodox Christmas in Ethiopia and days of festivals in Nigeria.


Traditionally four market days - afor, nkwo, eke and orie - make up a week in south-eastern Nigeria instead of the weekdays on a modern calendar.

A market will be held in a different area on each of these four days. Over Christmas, the celebrations are held over two market weeks, turn by turn starting from the community whose market day fall on 25 December.

This provides ample opportunity for reciprocal visits. Every family except the ones that are bereaved during the year must make adequate preparation by decorating their houses, cooking assorted foods and providing drinks to entertain their guests unconditionally.

Christmas is a time of covering up; it is not a time to showcase poverty.

In the olden days, blood of fowls or a goat killed on this day were sprinkled around the tree where the family have their god. Nowadays Christian families have switched over to family liberation prayers during Christmas period to break away from the gods of their ancestors.

It is difficult to guess the number of guests because friends and well-wishers come without invitation even with their own friends which the host family may not have even met before.

While the guests usually are expected from 12 noon, groups of children starts going from house to house in the morning to display various traditional dances with the hope of getting money from audience thrilled with their performance.

The celebrations of the day come to a climax at the market square in the evening with various masquerade groups delighting their spectators with magical performances.

The masquerade groups try to attract the audience to spray money on them.

Though it is not compulsory, guests - especially the in-laws - may bring gifts of wine, goat, yam and bags of rice, chicken or cash to their host family.

Seeing people that one has not seen for years is common during Christmas. It is shameful to a family if their members that stay abroad or in cities and do not come home for Christmas.

It is cultural to sew new Christmas clothes, especially for children. Adults also try to appear in new and best outfits throughout the festive period. Women must bead new hair styles.

This period is a time of spending, it is common to get requests from people asking you to "do Christmas" for them. This simply means that you should give them money and it can be embarrassing if one does not give because one is not expected to be stingy at Christmas.

Some people may run out of money in early January and may need to borrow money to return to the city.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa that has among others a unique calendar, which is very close to the ancient Julian calendar.

Ethiopians mark Christmas and Christ's birth on 7 January - it is called Ganna and it will not be an exaggeration to say it is the most colourfully celebrated holiday in the country.

Celebrations begin on the eve where people gather at churches to pray and chant.

Church at Lalibela
Pilgrims flock to Lalibela's rock-hewn churches for Christmas

Usually most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast the whole day on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day, just before dawn, believers dress in the traditional "shamma" - a white cotton wrap with brightly coloured stripes across the ends - and gather for the early morning mass.

Each person entering the church will be given a candle and the celebrations begin under flickering candles.

Priests dressed in turbans and red and white robes and carrying beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas will begin the colourful procession with prayers and songs.

Deacons and choirs will also join the priests in song and dancing and veneration of their creator.

The sound of bells and music from the churches are heard far and wide until the late hours of the morning. Before the end of the service, priests will serve Holy Communion to worshipers.

The place to really experience a traditional Ganna is in Lalibela - found in north-east Ethiopia. Pilgrims travel for days to attend colourful ceremonies at the rock-hewn churches nestled in the hillside.

Around the time of Ganna, young and also older men play a hockey-like game that is also called Ganna, which is played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball.

Traditional Christmas dish includes "injera", a sourdough pancake-like bread, and "doro wat", a spicy chicken stew served in a wide watertight basket.

On their return from church, families gather around these wide baskets to enjoy the holiday meal together.

Ganna is not an occasion for giving gifts in Ethiopia. Religious observance, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.

Twelve days after Ganna, on 19 January, Ethiopians begin a three-day celebration called Timkat, in commemoration of the baptism of Christ.

But that will be a topic for another day. For now Melkam Ganna (Merry Christmas)!

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