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HomeTravel news and articlesAfrican Christmas traditions

African Christmas traditions

08 November, 2018
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Christmas in Africa is celebrated in many different traditions, and many of them are actually reminiscent of the traditions we have back home.

How about decorating a cypress tree in Kenya? Or singing Christmas songs in the botanical gardens of Cape Town?

The biggest difference between African Christmas and our own is the heat. For many of the African countries, the Christmas months land in the summer.

Midnight mass and cypress trees in Kenya

Christmas in Kenya reminds a little of the Christmas we celebrate back home. The British brought many of their Christmas traditions to Kenya during the colonial era, though Christmas is not as commercialised in East-Africa as it is in the West.

The tradition of having a Christmas tree is one of the customs that continues to be popular in Kenya. In Kenya, people use cypress trees as Christmas trees, and these are decorated for Christmas much like we do back home. In the streets, houses and churches are decorated with colourful balloons, ribbons, paper decorations, and sometimes flowers.

In the Christmas, families gather together, and the Kenyans who live in the cities travel back to the villages they came from to spend Christmas with their families. Christmas dinner is eaten with the family, and here they often have barbecue-marinated goat, mutton, beef or chicken, which is eaten with chapati (flat bread).

Another common custom is to participate in a midnight mass on 24 December, where psalms are sung and Kenyans wish their friends and families “heri ya Krismasi”, which means merry Christmas in Swahili.

Chicken and potatoes for Christmas in Uganda

Christmas in Uganda is hard to notice in most of the country. The place you might most clearly see that it is Christmas is in the capital of Uganda, Kampala, where some of the city’s streets are decorated with lights.

For many in Uganda, it is unusual to give each other gifts for Christmas, as many live in poverty. But if they do give gifts, they are typically edible ones, such as meat, sugar or something the family has grown themselves in their own fields.

Leading up to Christmas, families eat delicious meals that are different from what they usually eat. In rural areas, the diet consists primarily of beans and bananas or grains the family has grown in their fields. For Christmas, the meal consists of things such as ox meat or chicken with potatoes or rice.

Other than the Christmas dinner, many also go to church on 24 December. It is common to wear your finest attire to church, and women are dressed in colourful traditional dresses with matching turbans.

Christmas psalms and shellfish in South Africa

Christmas dinner

British traditions have also influenced several South African Christmas traditions.

For example, South Africans exchange gifts in morning on 25 December, after which the big Christmas dinner is eaten. Christmas dinner is often eaten outdoors on porches or in gardens, as it is summer in South Africa in the Christmas month. The feast is very relaxed, and so friends – and even strangers – are sometimes invited along for this meal.

There are no fixed traditions for what the Christmas dinner should consist of, so South African families eat many different things. Some typical Christmas dishes include glazed ham and turkey steak, while others eat shellfish as a starter.

One popular way to spend Christmas Eve is to take part in a “carols by candlelight” event, where

South Africans gather in groups to sing Christmas psalms. Some places have orchestras and choirs, and you can come to hear them sing in Christmas.

If you are interested in spending Christmas Eve the South African way, you can take part in events such as carols by candlelight at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, at the amphitheatre in Victoria and Albert Waterfront, or on many vineyards outside of Cape Town.

Christmas psalms in Botswana

In Botswana, people decorate their homes in the holiday season much like people do in the UK.

Christmas Eve is spent with family, and they sing Christmas psalms. In the morning on 25 December, the whole family exchanges gifts, just like the tradition in England. A large segment of the population in Botswana lives in poverty, and so the gifts are often home-made.

After the gift exchange, the family eats Christmas dinner together, and the meal typically includes the Botswanan national dish, seswaa. Seswaa is a stew consisting of ox or goat meat served with maize meal. The meat that is served is often an animal from the family’s farm, which they slaughter leading up to Christmas.

Those who love festivities in the holidays will sometimes hold a Christmas party, which lasts for several days.

Christmas celebration in Botswana offers yet another tradition that originated in England. On 26 December, people celebrate Boxing Day. On this day, even more gifts are exchanged. Most people in Botswana use this day to relax with their families.

Maize meal for Christmas in Tanzania

In Tanzania, Christmas is celebrated on 25 December. The celebration starts when Christian Tanzanians go to the Christmas mass, after which they enjoy a Christmas dinner.

Christmas dinner often consists of ugali, which is a kind of maize meal, and if they can afford it, chicken or fish are served as well.  Aside from this, they eat “pilau”, which is a spiced rice dish, which can be served with meat or shellfish.

After the Christmas dinner, some families also exchange gifts, which are often home-made.

The place you most clearly notice that it is Christmas is in Dar es Salaam, which is Tanzania’s biggest city. Here the shopping centres are decorated with lights, and some places also have Christmas trees set up.

The Catholic churches of the city are also decorated for Christmas with wax candles and flowers, and on Christmas Eve, the church holds a midnight mass.

Christmas lights and German cakes

Christmas in Namibia starts with Christmas lights switching on in the big cities of the country around 6 December. Many families take their children around the city to look at the Christmas lights that illuminate the streets and fill them with a Christmas mood.

Some places in Namibia, such as inner Namibia, wax candles are not used, as the summer heat causes the wax to melt. Instead, they use electric lights.

In some shops, you can find German cookies leading up to Christmas. This “tradition” stems from the time Namibia was colonised by the Germans between 1884 and 1915.

A unique custom leading up to Christmas is to decorate a thorny branch with red and green Christmas decorations and hang it up at home.

The country has many different peoples, and they also have different Christmas traditions. In the Zambezi region, it starts on 24 December with a Christmas mass.

In some of the German communities in Namibia, families import Christmas trees from South Africa. Many others decorate thorn bushes instead.

The Herero people have a tradition where children prepare a small Christmas play leading up to the holiday, which they show their parents on Christmas Day. Afterwards, the family gathers for Christmas dinner.

Would you like to experience African Christmas traditions?


If you dream of getting away from the stress and hassle of Christmas back home, join our Christmas get-away to Africa.

Aside from the many safari and beach holiday activities you are guaranteed to experience, you may also be lucky enough to enjoy some of the above African Christmas traditions.

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