If you plan on spending the December holidays in Africa, here’s what you can expect to enjoy on the festive side. Remember to book your trip at least a year (if not more) in advance as everyone gets vacation this time of year and local travel is at its peak.
The history of Christianity in Africa
Christianity is thought to have spread to Africa around the same time as it reached Northern Europe – if not before – and was brought from Jerusalem to Alexandria by evangelist Mark in 1 A.D. Although North Africa came to be dominated by Islam by the 7th century, pockets of Christianity remain, particularly in Egypt and Ethiopia.
Christianity was introduced to sub-Saharan Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and in South Africa by the Dutch in the 17th-century. Missionaries representing a number of religions (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican) in the 19th century further spread the religion across the continent – David Livingstone being a famous example.
From an estimated nine million in 1900, there are now thought to be 380 million Christians across Africa – more than on any other continent.
As you’d expect, Christmas is widely celebrated across Africa. You’ll hear carols blaring out from supermarket speakers all throughout December, and Christmas and Boxing Day are public holidays.
Unless you’re enjoying a retreat in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, it is highly unlikely you will experience a white Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s summer time in East and Southern Africa. Beaches will be packed out, Santas with fake beards will be sweating in their red suits, palm trees and acacias will be strung with Christmas lights, barbecues will be a-blazing. Christmas also coincides with the long summer holidays for schools and universities and most businesses close between Christmas and New Year. Many people visit family at this time, and some cities are practically deserted as people make their way back to their rural communities.
In South Africa, ‘carols by candlelight’ is a popular Christmas Eve tradition, often in scenic settings such as Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens or the Cape Winelands in Cape Town. Santa features prominently – you can meet him at malls throughout the country – and Christmas Day itself starts with a visit to church and then a big festive meal. Many families gather for a braai (BBQ) or traditional Christmas dinner with paper hats, mince pies and turkey (a vestige of the British colonial legacy) although plum pudding is often substituted with malva pudding, a tasty sponge and apricot jam cake.
In East Africa, goats are quickly snapped up at the local markets and roasted on Christmas day, and Zimbabweans make sure there’s plenty of bread, jam and tea to eat along with their goat meat.
Those who can afford it will generally give gifts at Christmas, but the holiday is not nearly as commercial as it is in Europe or North America. The emphasis is more on the religious aspect of celebrating the birth of Jesus and if gifts are exchanged in poorer communities they usually come in the form of practical items such as school books, soap and clothing.
Safari lodges, restaurants and vacation spots will likely operate as normal but they’ll be busy – book in advance if you want to have a Christmas meal in a restaurant.
How to Say Merry Christmas
In Zimbabwe: Merry Kisimusi
In Zambia: Kristu akhale ndi inu munyengo ino ya Christmas
In Rwanda: Noheli nziza numwaka musha muhire
In Botswana: Masego a Keresemose
In South Africa: Afrikaans: Geseënde Kersfees, Zulu: Sinifisela Ukhisimusi Omuhle, Xhosa: Ndikunqwenela imini yozalwa kajesu emnandi
In Lesotho: Matswalo a Morena a Mabotse
In Tanzania & Kenya: Swahili: Kuwa na Krismasi njema
In Egypt: Colo sana wintom tiebeen
New Year’s Eve is celebrated in many communities across Africa. In most cities, hotels and bars will be full of party goers celebrating the New Year. Every country in Africa enjoys a public holiday on January 1st.
South Africa is one of the best places to celebrate New Year’s Eve if you like big parties. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town hosts one of the country’s biggest bashes with fireworks, music and dancing. Once you’ve finished partying, don’t forget to check out the big Minstrel Carnival on the 2nd January (it has been postponed for 2021).
In Johannesburg, you can usually head downtown to the Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown and party the night away with 50,000 of your friends to live bands. You can also head to any of Johannesburg’s numerous nightclubs and bars as they will all have big nights planned.
If you are on safari, the lodges and camps will throw special parties, often complete with hats and noise makers. You may want to skip the morning game drive on the 1st, though…