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Making Original Traditions From Our Colonial Past

A brief history of Christmas traditions.

BY Yaza Kenya Team

Nov 30, 2022, 05:36 PM

Photo by

Ekaterina Bolovtsova  









Going home for Christmas is the expected Kenyan way of spending the holidays.

We anticipate days filled with kids running around the compound, darting through livestock, or shaking mango trees while the adults fill up on booze and laughter as they turn juicy pieces of nyama choma on the grill.

Even when COVID-19  was on its peek, people travelled despite all the safety concerns that had been raised by health professionals. Bus fares are always hiked  during Christmas season as matatus try to make a killing from this fiasco and Nairobi and other cities become ghost towns until the new  year.

But have you ever asked yourself why our traditions are the way they are?

Read more: 11 ways to deal with toxic family this Christmas

Why do we make a huge show of going to the village for Christmas?

Kenyans have always been communal. Pre colonialism the country wasn't demarcated and we existed as independent communities governed by customary land laws. Families and clans lived in their areas with equal rights and no excesses. 

Then in 1895 Kenya became part of British East Africa which meant we were now a British Colony and so all land belonged to the queen. By 1906 the Elgin pledge came into effect which stated that the Kenyan highlands were reserved for white settlers so Kenyans were relocated to “native reserves.” These were usually overcrowded areas they could not escape from and as time went on most people started to move further and further away from their homes, only returning to visit their families when on breaks. 
After colonization, these traditions were already set
Husbands would go to Nairobi, Nakuru or Mombasa for better-paying jobs and come visit their families during the holidays. 

In a capitalist economy, working away from home, of course, meant increasing income and diversifying risks for many households. Especially when people started enjoying imported goods like clothes and blankets.

The consensus was you work hard in urban areas and send money back to improve and maintain your rural home.  This tradition has held even with modernization. Now we tend to work in urban areas and only spend time at home during the holidays either because we miss our families or because we have limited funds to holiday elsewhere. And that is why we go 'home' for Christmas. 

Why Did Kesha Become a Thing?

Kenya is a predominantly Christian nation with an estimated 85.52% of the total population being Christians. 

As colonialism took root the colonies took up most traditions of their colonial masters and Kenya was no exception. Embracing Christianity was made easy because most tribes were already monotheists.

The missionaries employed a tactic of religious and cultural domination and succeeded. Everything Western was ‘good’ and any local religious belief was ‘evil.’ As we gained independence in 1963 and tried to modernize ourselves we only had the Western model to copy from. So we embraced Christianity and always celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve. This is where the tradition of Kesha, or midnight mass, comes from.

What About Dressing Up?

If there is one thing that is purely Kenyan at Christmas it is having a great time!

Pre-colonisation, people were known to dress to the nines during ceremonies. From feathered hats and sisal strand skirts to beads and smearing bodies with red ochre. 
It is safe to say that even though the way we dress up has changed we still maintain our ancestors' pomp and colour!
Nowadays we get our hair and nails done, buy new outfits, and make sure we look and smell good for the holidays. Well, unless you are on kitchen duty.

No ceremony is ever complete without some form of booze. In the Luhya community, we had Busaa while the Kikuyu had Muratina. For Kambas the traditional beer Uki was reserved only for old men.

This was coupled with some form of dance like the Isikuti from Luhyas or Daruma dance from Mijikenda that made the celebrations complete.

These days we blast Christmas and Lingala songs for entertainment during Christmas. And dance along to the tunes while sipping on tumblers with our favourite modern or traditional drinks.  Most households will spend Christmas Eve and morning cooking special meals. Nyama choma is the star of the show, which has been borrowed heavily from traditional practices of slaughtering the choice cattle during special occasions. 

Special foods in the 90s were foods that one couldn't afford to eat daily. Chicken, chapatis, Kachumbari and Pilau were cooked once every year.  Even though we can afford to eat them daily now, we still reserve cooking them at a go for Christmas.

So go ahead and select that fat mbuzi and get to roasting and enjoy your Christmas traditions!