The World

Christmas and other devotions in Africa

Christmas Eve, Christmas, Ash Wednesday and Lent are some of the liturgical dates that Christians on the African continent are most concerned about.

Martyn Drakard-December 23, 2021-Reading time: 3 minutes

Photo credit: Laura Nyhuis / Unsplash

Among African Christians, major Christian feasts are celebrated in grand style. In her best-known book, Memories of Africa, Karen Blixen describes a typical Christmas Eve mass at the French mission near Nairobi, accompanied by the shy Kikuyu boy Kamante, who lent a hand to everything on his farm, but who, while receiving medical treatment at the Scottish Presbyterian mission had been warned of the statue of a woman at the Catholic mission and was afraid to attend, but was won over by the festive atmosphere, the Christmas crib "fresh from Paris", the hundreds of candles and the gaily dressed congregation, and lost all his fear.

The tradition of midnight mass continues to thrive here, although some parishes in the larger cities have suspended them for fear of insecurity. They are prepared ahead of time and awaited with great expectation. A nativity is a big event in Africa, and the Nativity of the Child Jesus has its unique flavor, which never disappoints, and the faithful want to be there at midnight to welcome the 25th once again.
But Christmas is a day of gifts, the day of the year when all family members gather to celebrate, a day of stories and memories.

In Africa, "family" means the extended family, which is usually quite large. And "Christmas" means the week leading up to New Year's Day, a time of rest, of visits from relatives, neighbors, friends, of generosity and open hospitality. It is also a time of quick profits for private means of transportation, buses, public cabs that double their fares counting on the desperation of city dwellers to get home to town in time for the holiday. It is the only time of the year when a noisy and frenetic capital city like Nairobi experiences peace and quiet.

The long Easter Vigil Mass is also widely observed, but perhaps most significant is the Good Friday Passion. Kampala, the Ugandan capital, for example, hosts an ecumenical Stations of the Cross through the city center. In addition, each Catholic church holds its own Stations of the Cross, culminating in Good Friday ceremonies, and many try to fit in a viewing of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

In the villages, the Stations of the Cross take up a large part of the day, and a man (or a woman, if there is no man to volunteer) carries a heavy cross for several kilometers through the village, across fields and ridges, as if to say: Jesus Christ carried his; what I suffer is little in comparison. And this, often in the middle of the rainy season.

But perhaps most striking of all is the seriousness given to Ash Wednesday as it is celebrated in Catholic churches. It is not a feast of obligation and yet it may be the day of the liturgical year that attracts the most people, and not just Catholics. On this day parish priests have to organize many more Masses. And what is the attraction? The ashes and what they seem to symbolize: contrition, sin, forgiveness, the transitory nature of this present life and death; and also affirming one's identity as a Catholic. People are moved by the words: Man, dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. It has become such a tradition that employers not only allow their employees time off to attend Mass, but some even remind them to attend. It also happens that, if the faithful miss the Mass proper, they go to the priest in the evening to ask for "ashes".

Africans do not deprive themselves of fasting during Lent, and not only of giving up sweets and chocolate during this period. The Church's prescription on the amount of food that can be consumed on fast days makes little sense here, as does the abstention from meat. For most of the faithful meat is already a luxury. Most of the population eats when they are hungry, if they can, and have long been accustomed to eating one meal a day, simply because they cannot afford two meals or more. However, whether the fast is out of necessity or devotion, the faithful take it seriously, and it can include not drinking water for many hours. Lent here takes place during the hottest and driest season of the year, just before the rains around Easter.

Finally, death is treated with great solemnity. It is a serious social and community duty to ensure that the deceased receives a "dignified farewell" to the afterlife. When circumstances permit, relatives and friends attend the wake. Sometimes their praises are sung at the funeral service, literally in some places, and there is dancing; eulogy and speeches praising their life, their contribution to the community or country, and their virtues will occupy much of the day. Anything else is considered disrespectful and shameful.

Africa may be backward and outdated in many ways, but in the main it may have got it right.

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