As an estimated 2.4 billion Christians, out of about 7.2 billion people, celebrate the 2016th birthday of Jesus Christ today, a palpable tension between the capitalist market and the ethos of Christianity rents the air.
A new game provocatively titled Santa vs Jesus that hit the markets (including Amazon.co.uk) in June 2016, has revealed the clash between the ethos of consumerism and religion on Christmas Day.
Described as “blasphemous” by critics and as “good fun” by its fans, the irreverent board game by the London company, Komo Games, depicts Santa Claus and Jesus Christ as taking each other on and invites players to divide into two teams – Team Santa and Team Jesus – to compete and win the most “believers.”
Beyond the perils of the Western capitalist market, in Africa, the preponderant rise of an indigenous middle class in recent decades is stridently turning Christmas into a consumerist circus. The market logic is complicating the continent’s long struggle to manage its triple heritage, once envisioned by Professor Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) as a product of three major influences: Indigenous African heritage; the spread of Islam and the heritage of Euro-centric capitalism.
Christmas is traced back to the entry of the heritage of Euro-centric capitalism under European colonialism, recently reinforced by resurgent neo-liberalism. Today, approximately 40 pc of Africans are Christians, mainly Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox or Coptic Christians.
But not all African Christians are commercialised or bear the birthmarks of Euro-centric capitalism. The Orthodox or Coptic Church came to Africa in the middle of the 1st century. Coptic Christians, mainly in Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea, have celebrated Christmas on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, which falls on or near January 7 on the Gregorian calendar.
In Egypt, the celebration of Christmas, which is preceded by 43 days of fasting, consists of a special midnight church service on Christmas Eve; eating of a special bread called “Qurban” in church; and a special meal called “fatta”, mainly meat and rice, at home. A tradition of giving a small amount of money (“El aidia”) to children to buy sweets and toys is the newest avenue for consumerism.
As in Egypt, in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Christmas is preceded by 40 days of fasting, followed by a church service at dawn on Christmas day involving singing, dancing and playing drums and other instruments.
After service, Ethiopians play a traditional game known as Gena, a kind of hockey based on an Ethiopian legend of the game that was being played by the shepherds who were tending their flocks on the night that Jesus was born, with winners getting awards. Christians don traditional white cotton clothing, and families share a stew made of meat and vegetables (wot) and “injera” bread made from teff flour.
Although the season ends with a three-day festival celebrating the baptism of Jesus, known as Timkat, that starts on January 19, the Coptic Christmas is less commercialised and more spiritual.
The second heritage is the spread of Islam through a combination of wars of conquest (Jihads) and evangelism from the 7th century. Today, Muslims form 45 pc of Africans, making Islam the largest religion on the continent.
However, in many parts of Africa, Muslims and Christians celebrate each other’s festivals. In Ethiopia, the term “socialists” is applied to Muslims and Christians who celebrate each other’s holidays without qualms!
In the Portuguese-speaking Guinea-Bissau, parts of the Muslim majority participate in the Christmas street parties. In Senegal, where 95 pc of the people are Muslims, Christmas is a national holiday. Muslims and Christians unofficially celebrate each other’s holidays, creating an atmosphere of religious tolerance.
And in the predominantly Muslim Sahel countries of Mali, Niger and Bukina Faso, some villages have started celebrating Christmas.
But despite this amity of faiths, Christmas season in countries like Kenya and Nigeria has been a moment of acute vulnerability to violent extremists mainly Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.
Finally, Christmas reflects the indigenous heritage borne out of time, climate change and collective lessons.
Indigenous heritage is now the fastest shrinking religio-cultural space in Africa. Less than 15 per cent of the continent’s 1.216 billion people adhere to the traditional religions. Since 2013, it is only in Togo that traditional African religions are declared as the majority religion. Over 85 pc of Africans are either Christians or Muslims.
But in many parts of Africa, Christmas is a much less commercialised fusion of the two Abrahamic religions and African indigenous beliefs and practices.
The family is at the heart of this cultural fusion. “Christmas is a time for giving,” says Sierra Leone’s Muslim President, Alhaji Ahmad Kabbah.
As such, many successful Africans make expensive trips to their ancestral villages to be with family and to bless those less fortunate.
Africa’s spectacular Christmas traditions are attracting tourists. West Africa is replete with a repertoire of ancient spectacular masquerades, traditional songs, masking ceremonies, colourful street parties, midnight masses and dishes inspired by biblical tales.
Some Nigerians decorate their homes and churches with palm fronds, which traditionally symbolise peace during Christmas. Others participate in traditional “Ekon” play, where a drama group dances from home to home carrying a “baby” doll, symbolising baby Jesus, that spectators may hold for a small donation.
In parts of Ghana, Christmas is the time to pay homage to midwives in line with a tradition based on a local legend about Anna, who is said to have assisted in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and saved his life from a jealous Judean king.
Fittingly, there are calls for these spectacular activities to be placed in Unesco’s World Heritage list.
However, the steady rise of a middle class in Africa, defined by the Africa Development Bank as people spending between $2 and $20 per day, is shrilly commercialising and radically changing the way Africa has celebrated Christmas.
More and more well-to-do middle class families no longer celebrate Christmas in ancestral villages with extended families, opting for luxurious getaways or drinking in bars. It is time for a sober reflection on the values propelling Christmas Day festivities and merrymaking.
Prof Kagwanja is the chief executive of Africa Policy Institute