Christmas in Kenya: Food, Traditions, and Culture

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:20 am

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, this tradition 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 December 24 and sometimes go on for hours.

Christmas Eve in Kenya

Kenyan Christmas celebrations typically begin on Christmas Eve. Many Kenyans attend Christmas church services, including 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.

Most 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 the church service ends, people return home and begin the festivities, which may include all of the following.


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

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


Many people in Kenya hold night vigils in honor of the holiday season. During the vigils, people light candles in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. Singing Christmas carols is a popular activity at these beautiful celebrations.


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

Gift exchanges

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

Kenyans dancing

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 to a 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 pressure the cook to serve you more quickly.

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

When it’s time to leave, your host will likely 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 are popular Christmas foods in Kenya?

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

Outside large cities, 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. Big families usually enjoy fresh-baked chapati, an unleavened flatbread, and many Kenyans brew their own local beer to serve alongside the holiday meal.

In cities, the Christmas feast typically concludes with dessert. Usually, sweets draw inspiration from holiday 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 the holidays?

Kenyans often dress up their churches and homes in urban areas 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.

Christmas decorations of any kind are uncommon in rural areas.

What are Kenyan Christmas trees like?

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

Christmas tree ornaments are similar to those familiar to North Americans and Europeans, including string lights, tinsel, and round glass or acrylic balls.

Are there Nativity scenes in Kenya?

Some families 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 detailing.

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 the holidays?

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 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 only small gifts 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, bring a small gift. 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, you are expected to 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?

Different from most countries in the West, exchanging cards is no longer a common tradition in Kenya. However, companies 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 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 greetings has led most stores to stop selling traditional paper cards, even in major cities.

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