Celebrating Christmas in West Africa

Wednesday, 16 December 2020 Celebrating Christmas in West Africa Rae is a SIM Australia mission worker who serves as a teacher at an international Christian school in West Africa. Here, Rae reflects on what it looks like to celebrate Christmas and observe traditions in a different culture. 

Christmas was always about celebrating with family, in Australia. My expectations and traditions had to change when I arrived in West Africa. The country I serve in does not have a large Christian population, so Christmas is not a widespread celebration. There aren’t any local traditions to absorb, instead I had to adapt my own with what was available. 
SIM has been in this country for a long time and has many mission workers here in the capital. This has been to my benefit because each year I have been able to find a plastic Christmas tree to borrow. It’s amazing what a tree and some fairy lights can do! The big supermarkets serve an international clientele and often stock Christmas decorations around December. We have been able to add tinsel and baubles to the tree and it creates quite an atmosphere at home. 

This year, I went hunting in the market for materials to make Christmas stockings. The fabrics here are beautiful and come in so many different colours and patterns. I have been inspired by what other SIM members have been able to make out of local materials, from stockings and Christmas decorations to Christmas tree skirts! 

Christmas is an important celebration at the Christian school where I teach. During Advent, we sing Christmas carols at assembly and we might share a skit or video about Christmas. This year, the primary campus made hundreds of metres of paper chain to decorate their building. We take three weeks off between semesters for Christmas break, meaning some families can travel back to their home country or have grown-up children visit for Christmas. 

In Australia, I have never celebrated Christmas with anyone outside my family. It has always been a big day, fitting in both my parents’ extended families on Christmas day. Here in West Africa, I have been humbled to have always been invited to spend Christmas with someone else’s family. Families are very generous to open their homes on Christmas day, inviting other singles or families to join them for a meal. I am grateful that I have been able to find so many families to adopt me. 

The one tradition that has not changed is the celebration of Jesus’ birth at church. I have recently learnt that it is not common in all countries to have a church service on Christmas day, but fortunately many churches in the country where I serve do. My local church opens its doors to the community and hosts a big celebration with lots of singing, a Christmas play, and a sermon. Afterwards, they offer lunch to everyone. Many non-Christians come to see the celebration. Our international church doesn’t have a service on Christmas day, but has a Carols by Candlelight service before Christmas. Again, this is a tradition I love and is not common to all countries. It is very special to praise God in English for His great gift of a Saviour. 

I have come to appreciate what is most important about Christmas, and that it can be found outside a traditional family celebration. Christmas is stripped of a lot of the fancy decorations and commercialism in West Africa. I have found more meaning in celebrating the gift of a Saviour with my Christian brothers and sisters. 
PRAY: Join us in giving thanks for Rae and the other teachers that serve at the school. Pray that the students would grow in their understanding of God's love for them. 

Jan D
Thanks Rae, for your view of Christmas celebrations in West Africa. Beautiful stockings you've made, from W. African material.
My husband and I were delighted to be in Swaziland many years ago, for Christmas with family there and we also were struck by how much more meaningful Christmas is when the food, commercialism and need to rush from family to friends was stripped away, replaced with a more Christ-centred meditation.
28/12/2020 8:50:42 AM

Cathlin B
Thanks for this, good to read how you’ve adapted your Christmas celebrations in your new country. When my husband and I did short term work with SIM in west Africa in 2008 we were also surprised to find church closed on Christmas Day!
23/12/2020 10:09:06 AM