Theology Thursday (December 29th to January 1st): It's Time To Africanise Christmas by Peter Mwaura
In one of his "feel-good" speeches after Independence years, Jomo Kenyatta is reputed to have told Kenyans at rally that Jesus Christ was born in Murang’a. Although the story is probably apocryphal, it is known that the founding President was fond of exhorting Kenyans to be proud of their culture and their past.
He used to urge them to stop ascribing all goods things of this life to other cultures and other people. Thus, he once told peasant farmers to stop describing their best milch cows as "English" or their best harvest of potatoes as "English" or "Irish".
But I think Christmas, not milch cows or potatoes, presented Kenyans at this time of the year with one of the greatest challenges to their identity and pride as a people. They celebrated the annual Christmas festival much the same way as it was celebrated in England, adding little if any that was of Kenyan flavour based on African customs. Whereas, almost everybody else in the world added something that was peculiarly their own to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
On Wednesday, a group calling itself Christian professionals suggested in a newspaper advertisement that the problem today is that "this sacred season has over the years been commercialised." Christmas, they said, has been "characterised by high incidences of unplanned spending and indulgence in alcohol and irresponsible sexual behaviour"
They urged the citizens to use this Christmas season to "seek and draw close to God" and to "reflect on our values, morals and aspirations" and to "figure out how best we can edge towards our purpose and destiny."
The group was simply identifying the same problem pinpointed by President Kenyatta some 40 years ago: blindly following other people’s cultures and lifestyles.
Outside Africa, Christmas is celebrated differently in different parts of the world depending on local customs. The way Christmas is celebrated in Japan is different from the way it is celebrated in Russia, Germany, United Kingdom or the United States. The only common factor is overindulgence in food and drink and commercialisation of the religious holiday; and that is what, on the whole, Africans have been left holding.
Christianity is not native to African culture. It was introduced to the continent by missionaries from Europe and the way Africans celebrate Christmas resembles the way it is celebrated in Europe. But there is no reason why we cannot celebrate Christmas in creative ways that reflect our traditions.
Look at the way African-Americans have made Christmas celebration reflect their own aspirations, hopes and pride. They have given Christmas a new name, Kwanzaa (matunda ya kwanza), after an ancient African custom of celebrating the first-fruit harvest. The celebration takes seven days, beginning December 26 and continues through January 1, focusing on family, community and culture.
Families, friends and the community gather together in reverence for the creator and creation. They offer thanksgiving and respect for people and nature. They recommit themselves to care for the vulnerable, to respect the environment and heal the world.
Kwanzaa is the result of African-Americanising Christmas. And why not? Nobody really owns Christmas. While it is based on the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospels and is the most popular Christian religious holiday, it is also widely observed as a secular festival. The way it is celebrated should reflect the culture and values of a people.
The way we celebrate Christmas is to some extent slowly acquiring a Kenyan flavour, if for no other reason than that we cannot faithfully replicate English traditions such as feasting on a boar’s head, sipping spiced ale, or sleighs laden with yuletide logs.
Progressively we are copying less of the more obviously ridiculous copycat aspects of Christmas, like adorning Christmas trees with cotton wool to symbolise snow and having our children hang out socks in the hope that a jolly, fat old white man with a white beard and a red suit will bring gifts on Christmas eve. Still, we have not come up with something that we can really call our own.
The Bible does not provide guidelines on how Christmas should be observed; nor does it even say that it should be a religious holiday. Historians do not even know when Jesus was born. The Roman Catholic Church chose December 25 in order to give Christian meaning to an existing pagan ritual, the day for the Feast of the Nativity. Africans should also feel free to paganise Christmas.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published in Kenya's Daily Nation.
Thursday, December 29, 2005