Christmas in Tanzania

Christmas in Tanzania: Family & Goat Roast

If you could travel freely again and had a wonderful opportunity to spend Christmas in Tanzania – not on safari or at the beach – but perhaps with a typical Tanzanian family, what would it be like? Is a Tanzanian Christmas like a European one or is it different in some way? Gonzaga Stephen lives in the Kagera Region on the western shore of Lake Victoria where he manages Jambo For Development, Jambo Bukoba’s partner organisation Tanzania. We asked him how Christmas is celebrated in his home.

Is Christmas celebrated in Tanzania?

Yes, we celebrate Christmas here. A large majority of the population in Tanzania – over 60% – is Christian, so observing the birth of Jesus Christ is an important and festive time of year. Even if we do things more simply and less commercially than in Europe and the USA, just like the western world, Christmas here is a time for family and loved ones to reunite in villages, towns and cities around the country.

Here in Germany, the 24th December is the main Christmas holiday when we visit family and exchange gifts. When do you celebrate in Tanzania?

In Tanzania, the main Christmas day when we also give gifts is 25th December. Christmas is the time when mothers and fathers try to buy new clothes for the other family members and maybe some simple toys or books for the children. Of course, this all depends very much on financial status.

Describe a typical Christmas in Tanzania.

On December 24th, Christians go to church from 8:00 pm until 10:00pm. After that, a lot of people will go out and celebrate with friends. On the 25th December, there is a holy mass in the morning, and then later on people join their families for lunch and drinks.

Depending on family income, everyone celebrates the 25th December differently. Some families, for example, invite their friends to lunch or dinner where the adults might drink beer and people will dance and have fun. Other families like to stay at home and make merry in their own yards. Cooking and eating a special meal on Christmas day is a big part of Tanzanian festivities.

Do you eat duck and goose just like we do here?

No, not really. Those who can afford it usually make a roast of goat meat known as nyama choma. This is served with traditional spices, salad, spinach, and cabbage. We also enjoy side dishes, such as rice or a thin, flatbread called chapatti, which is inspired by Indian cuisine, and of course ugali. That’s a typical African food made from cornmeal. It tastes a bit like polenta.

Crazy question, but watching old movies on TV at Christmas is a big thing in Europe and the USA. Is this something that Tanzanians do too? What would they watch?

They would watch an old biblical movie translated into Swahili or another native language depending on where it is being watched.

I saw a video on YouTube where many people gathered on the shores of Lake Victoria on Christmas day. Is it traditional to do this?

Yes, young people and children especially love to walk along the beach at Christmas time if the weather is good.

What’s the weather like at Christmastime?

It often rains on Christmas day and when it does, we call this the Christmas blessing. But it’s generally quite warm here – certainly warmer than in Europe.

Do schools and businesses close for Christmas vacation?

In December all schools close except colleges and universities. The shops stay open as do the bars and hotels. Christmas is a good time for people to make money. On Christmas Day some shops close.

How do different Tanzanian tribes celebrate Christmas?

Good question. There are many tribes here – over 100. Most of them do celebrate Christmas but of course, there are also tribes with their own non-Christian beliefs and traditions who don’t observe Christmas customs.

The Chagga is one of the biggest communities here in Tanzania. Traditionally, they live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. They are very business-oriented and, for the most part, quite well off. Chagga people are very dedicated to Christianity and with the same goal of being together with loved ones this Christmas, they usually take this holiday opportunity to travel to their villages to visit their families and even hold meetings to discuss issues such as social-economic welfare.

Then there is the Sukuma tribe, which lives in north-western Tanzania primarily on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. Sukuma make up the largest ethnic group in Tanzania. Their main source of income is farming and they are mostly Christian. Again, travelling to villages to celebrate with family members is important for this group.

Another tribe I would like to mention here is the Haya. They come from this region –Kagera – and they are the fourth-largest ethnic group in Tanzania. Predominantly Roman Catholic, they also celebrate Christmas and usually spend time with family too.

So being with family at Christmas is really universal for most of the Tanzanian society.

When were European Christmas traditions introduced to Tanzania?

Probably in the 1800s when Tanzania was colonised and Christian missionaries started to work around Africa.

Besides the religious aspects, are there Western cultural influences that play a role in the typical Tanzanian Christmas – like the Christmas tree or Christmas songs?

Christmas trees are certainly gaining popularity. And on the music side, we hear a lot of Christmas tunes on the radio from international artists like Jim Reeves and Boney M. with songs like Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Mary’s Born Child Jesus Christ. We also love to hear a Tanzanian Christmas song called Mbali kule nasikia.

How do you think Christmas will be different this year given the pandemic?

Fortunately, in Tanzania we are Covid-19 free, so people will be able to take part in all social gatherings starting with church services and then walking to the beach, going out to music halls, and meeting family and friends for a meal.

Anything else you can think of?

Yes, next time, just come to Tanzania for Christmas to celebrate with us and then you can truly experience this precious season and appreciate all the cultural differences. J


Interview Muriel Burke mit Stephen Gonzaga, Jambo Bukoba

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