When I go to the supermarket at Christmas in Tanzania, even the Muslim women are wearing Santa hats! Living in a pluralist and communal society, everyone joins in on the holiday, just like during Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) all the female employees wear a veil, regardless of their own religious affiliation.
That said, those same women don’t really participate in anything particularly religious and Christmas in Tanzania is primarily a religious festival, so the Santa hats are about all they do. There’s not a lot of other ‘Christmassy’ stuff that happens, apart from going to church if you’re a Christian and getting a public holiday if you’re everyone else. That’s how it works for Eid (the feast marking the end of Ramadan) or Diwali (the Hindu festival of light) as well, that as a society, Tanzania makes space for those who are celebrating and everyone else nominally supports them.
Presents are not much of a thing but Christians generally get new clothes and families have clothes sewn to match. Tanzanian fashion is one of my favourite parts of living here. This year, pencil dresses with bell-like arms are in for women. If I hold up my arms, they look like angel wings! Such fun!
Churches do use Christmas as a chance to invite people along, but I wouldn’t say there’s a big evangelistic push and children’s nativity plays are not a big deal either. Our church isn’t from a liturgical tradition, so doesn’t even have a Christmas Eve service, just an extra one on Christmas morning. I guess it’s warm enough that you could do an evening carol service, but it’s also a rainy time of year so it might get washed out. And any religious service in Tanzania, be it Christian overnight praise vigils or the Muslim call to prayer, is broadcast on speakers out to the neighbourhood anyway!
Lots of urban Tanzanians go home to the village for Christmas if they can afford it. Goat is a celebration food and at feasts, it’s served with as many carbs as possible: rice, pilau, plantain bananas, potatoes, ugali (stiff maize porridge), plus a few veggies on the side. People don’t tend to invite us to join in, though we get included in lots of different things but not Christmas. Maybe it’s that Christmas is less of a big deal. At our house this year, I’m thinking of doing cold roast chicken and salads and seeing if some colleagues who are still in town want to join us. I have made my mum’s fruitcake but it’s got some grog in it, so that’ll just be for Arthur and me – Tanzanian Christians do not drink alcohol.
We don’t try to recreate an Aussie Christmas. We do things one way when we’re in Australia, and another way when we’re here. And we have our own traditions that work anywhere: we do a Jesse tree and I make rocky road (because marshmallows are normally available in Tanzania) and we watch the movie Home Alone with our boys. And, predictably, I cry when Kevin gets reunited with his family at the end because I’m far away from mine and though I rarely cry when saying goodbye to them at the airport, I almost always cry when saying hello again.
It’s not that I don’t love Tanzania or our life here. It’s not even that I wish I was in Australia because I know that has its own stresses, including the busyness of life in Australia, consumerism and juggling different family expectations. But I recognise in myself a longing to be together with family at Christmas.
I suspect as the world faces a second Christmas in the COVID world, it’s not only expats feeling this way. Many who would have travelled to see family are limited by travel restrictions or concerns about health. Or others of us might lament being disconnected from family and wish they had the kind of family they want to be around. We feel the brokenness of the world; we feel ourselves and our relationships broken by it.
This is why, even through my tears, I sing ‘Joy to the World’ at Christmas, because I need to be reminded that God is a God who breaks into the weary world. And though at Christmas there’s a big focus on Jesus’ first coming, the longing to be with family or for things to feel whole points us to his second coming. The brokenness I feel is seen by God and my desire for reunion is God-given, because the baby in the manger is coming again on the clouds and he is the one through whom God is reuniting all things.