Fr. Stan Chu Ilo

Nigerian Christmas is defined by faith, family

By  Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, Catholic Register Special
  • December 20, 2011

“Are you coming home for Christmas?”

“No, Uncle Buga, not this time.”

“Do you realize,” he said to me sounding emotional, “that you have not been home for Christmas since you left the country?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but you know that it is not possible for me to leave my people here in Canada during this great celebration.”

“So you prefer them to us?” he wondered. “We miss you so much and I am not sure that they celebrate Christmas in Canada the way we do here. I understand that it is so cold in your place that people celebrate Christmas indoors….”

He went on and on trying to convince me to come home for Christmas, especially this year when we also celebrate the biggest ethnic cultural feast in my community.

Christmas has become in many African communities the biggest celebration of the year. It is a time for family reunions and homecomings. The cities are usually empty during the Christmas season as everyone returns to his or her ancestral home to celebrate with family. It’s also a time when every girl must get a new dress, a “Christmas dress.”

Christmas in Africa is a celebration for everyone — Christians, practitioners of African traditional religions, Muslims — no one is excluded. In many African communities it is also a time for reconciliation among families and in individual spiritual and moral lives. Priests sit at the confessionals for three hours daily in the last week before Christmas hearing confessions. In many instances, Christmas is also a time for group, family and communal celebration of prayer, reconciliation or special intercessory prayer-meetings and special Masses and vigils for parishes and communities. It’s a time when people give gifts to new babies born that year and pay condolence visits to those who lost loved ones.

Mutual exchange of gifts and visits are essential elements of African Christmas. Children go door to door on trick-or-treat visits receiving gifts and money from generous families. Most parishes in Africa receive more offertory at Christmas than they receive in the rest of the year. In Eastern Nigeria, Christmas is also time for masquerades and traditional dancing troupes to perform for family groups and showcase their talents in the city centres and street corners. Christmas in Africa is a week-long continuous celebration and carnival of faith, culture, friendship, family and community.

The high point of the celebration is the Christmas midnight Mass, which is usually followed with fireworks and a gun salute to welcome Baby Jesus. On Christmas day itself, there is the traditional slaughtering of animals for the  banquet. Large families may slaughter a cow, while smaller families will slaughter a goat, lamb, ram, turkey or chicken. In Eastern Nigeria, the main dish is usually accompanied with rice, meat soup and fufu. There is usually too much to eat and so much local brew, pop and beer to drink. Even the poor will find a rich neighbour or family member who will celebrate Christmas with them. The one-week Christmas celebration is a time of open doors for family members, friends, strangers and the poor. No one needs an appointment; everyone is usually welcome.

Christmas is a Western Christian practice that has been embraced fully and enthusiastically by Africans, especially African Christians. God obviously works in wonderful ways, showing His footprints in the sands of history as Christianity continues to spread in Africa and many other non-Western cultures. Here, people are embracing the Christian life, ceremonies and feasts such as Christmas.

It needs to be noted that Christmas in Africa has also become a time for business and profiteering. Things are usually expensive during the Christmas season. The words “Christmas” and “Christ” have, however, remained dominant; the only greeting people use is Happy Christmas and not happy holidays.

This year, however, I wonder if Christmas will be celebrated by millions of African homeless refugees in Dadaab, Northern Kenya? I wonder if  thousands of dislocated Africans in Eastern Congo will celebrate Christmas in their broken camps? I wonder if millions of Africans who are struggling to make a living or who are living in the shadows of diseases like AIDS will celebrate Christmas? 

When I speak with Uncle Buga again to wish him Happy Christmas, I know he might tell me of some deaths in the community, of someone who is struggling to get a business started, of someone bitten by a snake, etc. He will also tell me of the great strides being made by the local women to improve their group life, of some young boy or girl who graduated from the university  and those who landed new jobs.

I will share with him the great joy of living and working in Canada, of the friendship which many of us immigrants experience from Canadians, of the challenges facing Canadian churches, and of the amazing faith and generosity of many Canadians I see every day.

Humans are the same everywhere, facing similar challenges but in different contexts. Some are crying while some are rejoicing; some are being born and some are dying; some are being admitted to hospital and some are being discharged; some are getting a new job and others are retiring. But amidst these realities, we know in faith that the Good Lord comes as a baby this Christmas to meet us all in our different circumstances. He brings strength to the weak and comfort to those who are suffering, whether they live in the sunny clear skies of the African Sahara desert or the white snowy ice of Nunavut or in the lurch rocky plains of the Himalayas.

(Fr Chu Ilo belongs to the faculty of theology, University of St Michael’s College. His latest book is The Church and Development in Africa: Aid and Development from the Perspective of Catholic Social Ethics.)

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