Christmas in Kenya: Food, Traditions, and Culture

Christmas is one of the most important holidays in largely Christian Kenya, with families across the nation joining in the annual festivities. If you’re in Kenya for the Christmas holiday and want to find ways to enjoy the celebrations, read on for everything you need to know about the best-loved Kenyan Christmas traditions, decor, food, and stories.

How do you say “merry Christmas” in Kenya?

There isn’t one single way to say “merry Christmas” in Kenya because the country is home to many ethnic groups with their own languages. The official languages of Kenya are English and Swahili.

The phrase for “merry Christmas” in Swahili is Heri ya Krismasi, which is pronounced “HAY-ri yah KRISS-mah-see.” When someone says this to you, the expected response is, Wewe pia, pronounced “WUH PEE-uh.,” which means “also you.”

What is the story of Santa in Kenya?

In Kenya, Santa is called “Father Christmas.” His story is the same as in other parts of the world, and he looks very similar to the Santa Claus who visits children in North America and Europe, with a full white beard and a red velvet suit trimmed in white fur.

Because there is usually no snow in Kenya, Santa doesn’t come in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Instead, he drives a Range Rover or a car. Sometimes, Santa arrives riding a bicycle—or even a camel!

The Father Christmas tradition is more common in urban areas of Kenya, where many shopping malls have a Christmas Village where children can meet the elves and Father Christmas himself. In rural areas, Father Christmas is less well-known.

How is Christmas celebrated in Kenya?

December 25 is a public holiday in Kenya. Schools, offices, and most businesses close for the day. This allows Kenyans to travel to their hometowns to celebrate the holiday with their family.

Many people travel out of major cities to more remote villages in preparation for Christmas. As a result, traffic jams are common on Christmas Eve and sometimes go on for hours.

Christmas Eve in Kenya

Kenyan Christmas celebrations typically begin on Christmas Eve. Many Kenyans attend midnight church services that include a sermon, singalongs, poetry readings, and dance performances.

Nativity plays are one of the most widely observed Christmas traditions in Kenya. Children often perform in them, taking on the roles of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi.

Many churches incorporate these performances into their midnight church services, though they may be held at other times in the days leading up to the Christmas season.

After church ends, people return home and begin the festivities, which may include:

Caroling

Carolers go from house to house singing traditional carols in English, but there are also Christmas songs written in Swahili. One of the most famous is “Christmas na Kimangu,” or “Christmas Mystery,” a joyous song that describes the birth of Jesus.

It’s customary to give carolers small cash donations. On Christmas Day, the singers donate this money to the local church in the spirit of Christmas giving.

Dancing

Between carolers, families drink beer or sip coffee and play instruments or recorded music while everyone dances.

Kenyans dancing

Gift exchanges

Most people exchange gifts after church on Christmas Eve instead of when they wake up in the morning on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day and Boxing Day in Kenya

Many Kenyans stay up all night celebrating on Christmas Eve. In some cases, they attend church again in the morning and then take a short nap. After that, the family prepares the Christmas feast, known as nyama choma.

If you’re invited for the nyama choma, arrive at the time the host said food will be served. Showing up early is considered rude and may be misconstrued as an attempt to put pressure on the cook to serve you more quickly.

Normally, Kenyans spend a few hours after the meal visiting and enjoying each other’s company.

When it’s time to leave, your host is likely to walk out with you. If you arrive on foot, they may travel with you for one-quarter or even half of your journey back home. It is a tradition to see guests off rather than bid them farewell at the door.

Boxing Day, December 26, is also a public holiday in Kenya. Most businesses remain closed, so the day isn’t for shopping the way it is in some other countries. Instead, Kenyans use the time to relax with family after the hustle and bustle of the holiday.

What is traditional Christmas food in Kenya?

Barbecue is the most traditional Christmas food in Kenya. The big Christmas feast—the nyama choma—includes chicken, beef, sheep, and goat as the main courses.

In rural areas, families slaughter and prepare their own livestock, taking great pains to choose the finest animal for the feast.

Rice is the most common side dish. Families usually enjoy fresh-baked chapati, an unleavened flatbread, and many Kenyans brew their own beer to serve alongside the holiday meal.

In cities, the Christmas feast typically concludes with dessert. Normally, the sweets draw inspiration from Christmas treats from other parts of the world. Cake and pudding are especially popular. Kenyans living in rural areas normally don’t finish their meals with dessert since the key ingredients for them are often seen as luxury items.

How do Kenyans decorate for Christmas?

In urban areas, Kenyans often decorate churches and homes with balloons, green leaves, flowers, ribbons, and handmade paper decorations. Although shopping malls are often decorated inside with electric string lights, large outdoor light displays aren’t the norm in Kenya.

Decorations of any kind are uncommon in rural areas.

What is a Kenyan Christmas tree like?

Kenya isn’t home to fir or pine trees, so those who choose to put up a tree usually decorate cypress trees.

Ornaments are the same that are familiar to North Americans and Europeans, including string lights, tinsel, and round glass or acrylic balls.

Are there Nativity scenes in Kenya?

Some families do set up a Nativity scene in their homes in anticipation of the arrival of the Christmas season. Often, the figures are carved out of wood in the style of traditional African art, with smooth faces and minimal detail.

Colorful, hand-painted finishes create cheerful decorations for the holiday season. As with other decorations, Nativity scenes are most common in Kenyan cities.

Nativity scene

What do Kenyans give each other for Christmas?

Clothing is one of the most common Christmas gifts in Kenya. Both adults and children often receive new outfits as presents on Christmas Eve. Then, they show off their new clothes for the Christmas Day feast. Across Kenya, families often hire photographers to take group portraits of everyone dressed up in their holiday finery.

Although Kenyans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, the American Black Friday shopping tradition has taken off in Kenya in recent years. In Nairobi and some other areas, retailers unveil their holiday decorations and discount prices to attract shoppers on the Friday after the U.S. observes Thanksgiving. Nearly 40% of surveyed Kenyans said they bought a Christmas gift on Black Friday in 2021.

Kenyans in urban areas may exchange gifts beyond clothing, but in rural areas, additional presents are usually small, practical items that people can use on a daily basis. In some regions, missionary groups provide gifts of food, toiletries, and toys to locals.

There are a few rules and customs around gift giving in Kenya including:

  • Use your right hand or both hands to physically give a gift. Avoid reaching out with your left hand as this is considered bad manners.
  • Bring a small gift when invited to a Kenyan home for a holiday celebration. Flowers or tea are the most common host and hostess gifts in cities, while in rural areas, gifts of flour, coffee, sugar, and maize are appreciated.
  • Present gifts in woven bags called “kiondo.” If you receive a gift in one, it is expected that you’ll return it after the holidays and fill it with small gifts as a show of gratitude for the present.

Do people send Christmas cards in Kenya?

Exchanging Christmas cards is no longer a common tradition in Kenya, although companies will sometimes send them out—especially if they do business with customers in other parts of the world.

But for most individuals and businesses, e-greetings are a more popular way to spread holiday cheer than the post. People usually send along well wishes via social media, messaging apps, and e-mail.

Roughly 42% of the country’s population had access to the internet at the start of 2022, and efforts to expand access bring more people online every year. The popularity of online Christmas greetings has led most stores to stop selling traditional paper Christmas cards, even in major cities.

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