As a nation over 80 percent Christian – around half Protestant and a quarter Catholic – Christmas is celebrated in Kenya by almost everyone except the some 10 percent who follow Islam.
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As most Muslims live in concentrated areas along the coast, and even there half are non-Muslim, Christmas is kept in practically every area of the country. Those among Kenya’s 45 million people who do partake of Christmas festivities, for the most part, do it with a deep sense of religious conviction and with a strong commitment to renewing family ties.
To celebrate “Krismasi” (Christmas in Swahili) with family, large numbers of Kenyans travel back from the cities to more rural areas. The reason that this practice is so common is that droves of Kenyans have moved to the big cities to find work in recent decades but have many family members still living “back in the villages.”
The churches will be full across Kenya for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services, wherein children are often called upon to recite various poems on the topic of Christ’s birth. The children also usually perform traditional dances at this time. Carolling is still very common on Christmas Eve, and carollers are often given candy or other small gifts in return for the songs they offer. Children will be seen wearing face paint, sporting out-of-the-ordinary hair styles, and (for girls only) donning sparkling Christmas dresses.
Churches, homes, and businesses alike are decked out for the holidays with colourful balloons and ribbons and with various varieties of trees and plants that are “disguised as Christmas trees.” The trees and plants may bear such things as small bells, miniatures presents, and real lit candles.
Christmas dinner will generally consist of goat, sheep, chicken, cow or bull – animals which have been fattened up for the season and then slaughtered just in time to prepare the meat for the feast. Besides freshly slaughtered, roasted meats, there will be pilau, which is rice cooked in heavily seasoned broth, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, chapati (a tortilla-like bread), and “Christmas spirits”.
In earlier days, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kenyans were generally only able to eat “delicacies” like roasted meat and chapati around Christmas time. Today, however, many can afford to eat these dishes any time of year. Some now revert to simpler, more traditional foods during Christmas for a change of pace and to remember “the old days.” Christmas was also previously one of the only times when extensive shopping, especially for new clothes, took place. Today, some lament the irony of how greater year-round wealth has stolen away some of the uniqueness of the season. Nonetheless, it is observed with great devotion and excitement by the people of Kenya.
Three activities to consider taking part in if in Kenya around Christmas time are:
- Donate or volunteer to help those living in poverty enjoy a good Christmas meal. In the slums of major cities and other poverty-stricken areas, missions organisations will be giving out special Christmas meals to children at orphanages and others in need. Joining in to give to others, even while on vacation in a far off land, will be rewarding and help spread the joy of the season.
- Shop Nairobi. The malls will be highly decorated for the season, and there will be plenty of sales. Top shopping locations include: Westgate Shopping Mall, Yaya Shopping Centre, SAFARICOM, and Zanzibar Curio Shop. You may also want to visit the market on Jogo Road, where animals destined to become local Christmas dinner main dishes, along with all manner of fruits, vegetables, and other food items are sold.
- Find some Christmas leisure time at Diani Beach Resort. The sands stretch for six miles along the crystal-blue Indian Ocean, and you can wade on sandbars in the shallows or laze under the shady palms. There are coral reefs, wildlife at the nearby Shimba Hills National Reserve, and plenty of hotels, restaurants, and shopping centres in the area.
If in Kenya for Christmas, you will find that the season’s traditions are often very different than in the West. Nonetheless, the “reason of the season” and the spirit of joy and of giving are as alive here as anywhere else on earth.