Furahaya ya Krismasi – Merry Christmas

Furahaya ya Krismasi is Swahili for “Merry Christmas.”  It tells us something about East Africa’s celebration of this holiday that “Furaha ya Krismasi” was only recently added to the vocabulary of East Africa.

The way that we celebrate Advent and Christmas is not the way that such things are celebrated and practiced in East Africa.  While most East African countries now have lectionaries of readings for every Sunday of the year, the liturgical seasons are not as finely developed as they are in western nations.

For example, most people in East Africa never heard of Epiphany or Advent.  Lent is new to the people I know.  It is only in recent years that some few East Africans began to wash feet on Maundy Thursday.  The early Anglican and Roman missionaries did not teach these things to the African peoples.

So, while we celebrate the liturgical season of Advent on the four Sundays preceding the day of Christmas, most East Africans do not have our understanding of the significance of that season.  They may have readings, which point in that direction, but have not connected that series of Sundays into a season.  I found no Swahili word for our English “Advent.”

East Africa does remember and celebrate the day of Christ’s birth.  But, they are only now realizing that December 25 is not the actual date of Christ’s birth.  There was no December 25 when Jesus was born as a human being.  We do not know the actual date of Christ’s birth.  For East Africans, it is not an easy lesson to learn that December 25 was the date that the early church picked to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, God made man.

East Africans do not celebrate Christmas with the massive giving of gifts, decorated Christmas trees, midnight services, and exterior lighting up of their huts!  What do they do?  They do exchange a few small gifts with a few of their family.  They do gather as family for a meal together.  They may go to church if a special service is offered.  The service probably won’t be at midnight, an unsafe time to walk the rural roads of this land.

In seven trips to East Africa, I have only seen a Christmas tree once – in the Nairobi airport, a small, thin, and scrawny tree – with five lights on it..

East Africans look with amazement on the way that we celebrate this holiday.  They see it as rampant consumerism without knowing the word.  Most of them have no interest, no desire, no capability to celebrate the day as we do.

While I like some of the American ways of celebrating this holiday, it seems to me that the East African way is a purer, simpler way of remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus.  I am guessing that those of us with European descendents have some knowledge and memory of how our grandparents and great-grandparents celebrated the season and that such celebrations were purer and simpler than what we do now.  I guess that it is very hard for us not to be caught up in the buy-buy-buy consumer oriented society that we live in today, much to the detriment of celebrating the holyday of Christmas.  We are caught up in the American way of celebrating the holiday.  “Black Friday” is a bigger day than is Good Friday.  Sad.

What traditions of Christmas celebration have been passed on to you and what traditions are you going to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

So, depending on your choices, I wish you either “Happy Holidays” or Merry Christmas!”


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