Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas in West Africa

Christmas is celebrated throughout West Africa in Christian communities - in fact, in some areas, even non Christians join in and celebrate. Though regional differences abound, returning home to be with family, attending midnight mass and/or Christmas day church service, and giving the gift of new clothes are prevalent ways of celebrating.   

Family celebrating Christmas in Ghana
Photo Credit: Jason Finch


Christmas is an important Christian holiday in Ghana, celebrated with church services, caroling, feasting, and giving small gifts. Houses and sometimes fruit trees are decorated with paper ornaments, and the most traditional gift is new clothes for a new year. Celebrations start in full with festive Christmas Eve church services, filled with singing from church choirs, dancing and a nativity play. Often after the service, there are joyous processions through the streets led by local bands. Sometimes the services and dancing goes on all night. On Christmas day, people come out in their traditional clothes and fill the churches. When they return home, they exchange gifts. Children are told that gifts are from Father Christmas. Christmas meal in Ghana is often rice and goat or chicken stew, or okra (gumbo) soup, porridge and pounded yam (fufu). Some people also go to church on the 31st December to thank God for sending Jesus Christ.

One of the Christmas greetings is a special Akan word "Afishapa" that means Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Akan is one of 79 languages spoken in Ghana.

There is also a special tradition in some areas of honoring midwives. The Ga people love to recount the legend of Anna, a woman who is said to have assisted in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and saved his life from a jealous king, and the story is told every Christmas. Midwives are honored by being showered with gifts. 

Nativity from Cote d'Ivoire
Photo Credit: Josh Hale

Cote d'Ivoire

Christmas Day in Cote d'Ivoire is celebrated by local Christians with all-night church services that start on Christmas Eve and end at 6:00 a.m on Christmas day. During this service, there is singing, group dancing, poetry, skits, testimonies, prayers, and a sermon. Ivoirian Christians don't exchange gifts on Christmas, they do this in the new year for prosperity.


Nigeria has more Christians than any other West African country. Christmas is celebrated with zeal, with many families celebrating all night long on Christmas eve, and everybody goes to church on Christmas day. Some customs are very similar to North American Christmas celebrations: carols are heard in many households from the beginning of December, cards are sent to friends and family, artificial trees are put up, and gifts are exchanged. 

E ku odun, e ku iye'dun means Merry Christmas in the Yoruba language, one of 514 languages spoken in Nigeria.

Other customs are unique to Nigeria. For one thing, towns and cities seem to empty as most return to their ancestral villages to be with family. Though whether in the city or in rural villages, homes, churches, streets and shops are decorated with palm fronds. According to an old belief, palm fronds symbolize peace - this decor invites peace and harmony into their lives during the Christmas season. Many communities also have a masquerade, with traditional dancing and mask ceremonies.

Along with Christmas carols and midnight mass, there is a very popular play, often performed by children, called the "Ekon" play. Performers dance from home to home carrying a "baby", who symbolizes the birth of Jesus Christ. Home owners accept the doll and give presents to the performers. Then the doll is returned to kids who continue their "journey".

The most important part of the traditional Nigerian Christmas meal is meat - whether turkey, goat, ram, or chicken. Depending on the region, there is usually some sort of stew, pounded yam (fufu), and jollof rice (south).


There is a Catholic minority in the south that celebrate Christmas with church services, feasting and gift exchange. The growing tourism and western media has made an impact in the urban areas, with Santa becoming a common in shops and non-Christians who have begun celebrating with gifts. 

In the historic city of Saint-Louis (also known as the Venice of Africa), the carnival of Les Fanals (The Lantern Festival) is celebrated. There is much drumming and dancing, with the highlight being the parade of fanals that represents the history of St. Louis from its beginning until Senegal gained its independence. Les fanals are lantern like floats, nearly 5 meters tall that are shaped like houses and boats. This tradition comes from the 18th century custom when the wealthy and privileged Signares initiated the festival of decorated lanterns to flaunt their status. (Signares were the wealthy offsprings of short term intermarriages between French merchants & traders with locals). On Christmas eve, the Signares would walk the streets in a slow procession to midnight mass, with their servants carrying candlelit lanterns of scaled down models of their homes. You can see a slideshow of the carnival of Les Fanals here.

The Gambia

Nearby, in certain areas of The Gambia, they also have a special Christmas parade of lanterns called "fanals". These lanterns aren't quite as large as the ones in Senegal (see above) though are equally elaborate. They are made of bamboo and paper, and lit internally by either candles or electric lights. They are then either set on wheels or carried by people and paraded in the streets with festive music, followed by groups of people. The groups of people often stop in at peoples houses, expecting donations that will then be used to throw a huge party for New Year's day. This tradition was brought to The Gambia by Senegalese Signares who settled in the area in the 1820s (read the history above, in the Senegal section).

Masquerades are also developing into a Christmas tradition, where non-Christians, even Muslims, join to celebrate the season in grand style. People roam the streets with a masquerader called 'Agugu', as well as various dance groups and acrobats in festive processions, hoping for donations. 

Santa and his elves :) in The Gambia
Photo Credit: Claudia


Christmas is a great social occasion for Christians in Liberia, and is almost exclusively religious. The celebrations are centered on family get togethers and church services.


In Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, it's not Christmas Eve without "bacalao", a plate of dried cod imported all the way from Scandinavia. Family celebrations are held on Christmas eve, when bacalao is served and gifts are exchanged - typically clothes. Christmas day finds the streets busy with people showing off their new clothes. However, the poverty in Guinea-Bissau means these traditions are enjoyed by the minority. It's the midnight mass and the street parties on December 25th that include the majority of celebrants. Even parts of the Muslim majority participate in the street parties!

Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, celebrations are lively, including parties and pre-Christian traditions with popular costumes mixed in with religious sermons. Masquerades and masking ceremonies play a major part in the celebrations in Freetown, and in the cities bands play Christmas songs in the streets during all of December. On Christmas day, friends and family get together, enjoy a feast and exchange gifts. 

Christmas Nativity (Creche) in Burkina Faso
Photo Credit: Jonathan Dueck

Burkina Faso

In many Burkina Faso villages, children are at the centre of one of a new Christmas traditions. With either cement or a mixture of clay, straw and water, kids build large nativity mangers outside their compounds. These nativity scenes are throughout villages and stand until the rains slowly wash them away, close to Easter while some stand until the following year when they are cleared away to make a new one. You can see a slideshow of various Christmas nativities from Burkina Faso here.


  1. Goodness, I am learning so much from your West Africa posts! How interesting that Scandinavian bacalao is served in Guinea-Bissau. I adore the Ivoirian nativity set - so beautiful. Happy New Year!

    1. And I'm learning so much in writing them :) It's rather interesting, isn't it, how colonization affects and influences cultures?

  2. Ooooh, so good to have you back!!
    Happy New Year to you and your family - I hope 2015 brings you much happiness!
    I had elaborate plans for doing a Christmas round the world this year but I was lazy and didn't! It is fascinating to see all the different ways various cultures celebrate what is essentially the same festival.

    1. Thank you Claire, I feel invigorated for a new year of blogging :) I love learning about how Christmas is celebrated around the world - a festival we feel so connected to, it really is just fascinating how differently it's enjoyed.

  3. The Nigeria custom sounds a bit like Las Posadas for Mexico.

    1. I hadn't thought of that - it does, doesn't it?


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