By Obinna Udenwe
I have always wondered, why so much exhilaration surrounds Christmas, everywhere in the world? – bells jingling on the streets, traders calling out to tourists to buy their wares, shops displaying gift items and flowers and toys. Street traders hawking Father Christmas masks and gowns; causing trouble between children and their parents. And Christmas trees getting more innovations and becoming costlier. I have not forgotten about Christmas music – there are so many of them. All embroidered with sweet melodies that leave you yearning for the 25th day of the month of December.
We used to watch Hallmark Channel on the cable network. My siblings and I. During Christmas, the channel would concentrate more on Christmas films – we took a journey with European and American kids along their well-cobbled roads, aligned with shops that have illuminating lights and posters, announcing discounts. It was in these movies that we saw that it was a ritual for every family to purchase Christmas trees that were decorated with bells and plastic balls and stars and toys. We would cuddle on the sofa, and watch, while the Harmattarn wind blew at the curtains in our sitting room, hauling them up above our heads, bringing in dusts and cracking our lips.
Preparations for Christmas in Nigeria start in different ways – if a kid was from a poor background, he would be lucky to begin Christmas preparations on time. His parents would purchase his Christmas clothes towards October, when things were cheap – he would become the street hero, as the first in the street to talk about his Christmas cloths and shoes. Other kids would regard him as rich, even though they do not know that the clothes were purchased early because his parents were scared that late purchase would be costlier. On Christmas, his clothes and shoes would look old fashioned, because they were purchased when Chinese manufacturers had not produced and shipped to Nigeria, their new designs for the year’s Christmas. His friends would laugh.
For children, preparations for Christmas would start at the tail end of November. They would exchange stories and discuss those travelling to the villages for Christmas and those who would stay back in town. Those ones were regarded as town-sheeps. They roamed the town, guarding it for those that had respect for their kin in the villages. On the first week of Christmas when the FM radio stations would begin to play “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” everyone would tune their radios high and whistle along. During the second week, the announcements on radio and television stations would start, about Santa Claus, who would be arriving in from the North Pole, bearing gifts for children and adults alike, every child would begin to make preparations to go to the stations for Father Christmas show. There would be Father Christmas in all the radio and television stations in the country.
Father Christmas would add a lot of spirits to the Christmas excitements. The advertisements would show him dressed on long gowns – white and red. His face covered with masks, to cover his dark complexion. Long white beards would dangle from his chin, stretching up to his stomach. In the year 2000, my siblings and I visited Father Christmas for the first time. It was on a Sunday – our father drove us to the radio station and we purchased our tickets for Two-Hundred Naira. We were served chilled bottles of mineral drinks. And were asked to dance. The winner would receive a gift. When we danced, I was the first person that the moderator expelled from the dance floor; “See you next year,” she said. I was angry, not because I would not get the gift. But because the “next year” was a very long time.
When we queued to see Father Christmas, the mysterious man from North Pole whose baskets of gifts never ran dry, we could hear the questions other kids asked him over the radio. Parents at home listened. When it was my turn, I asked him “How many children he had?” He said he had only one wife, but many children and I was one of them. The next term in school, our form mistress flogged me. She had listened to the radio during the Father Christmas Show. She said I asked a cheap question.
There were balloon games for children. If you paid five naira, you would be given a paper board that had balloons of all sizes and were numbered. There was another board, with smiley objects on them. If you picked one smiley object, they would check the number at the back and that determined the balloon you would win. Every kid had balloons, different sizes and shapes. There was the biggest balloon that no one ever won. We later got to know that the shopkeepers would remove the smiley that had the balloon number, for his children. Even though some kids stole their mother’s money to play the balloon lottery, few ever won those big balloons. True.
There would be Christmas parties at the governor’s lodge and at the schools and churches. Most of these parties at the lodge would be for children from rich homes and children whose parents were politicians. We used to go to the government house gate and wait for the time we would have a crowd of kids, enough to push our way in. The security would not shoot us. That we knew for sure. When we got to the party arena, we would be the ones to cause trouble and fight over the gifts.
Nights during Christmas periods would be cold. The harmattarn wind would find its way into your body and into your bones, no matter how thick your sweat cloth was. There would be coloured electric twinkling lights everywhere – in front of banks, inside the banks, in front of buildings owned by rich people, and inside the rooms of poor people. Government would put the electric twinkling lights on all the streetlight poles, if you drove out at nights you would not want to go home.
Children and youths would do fireworks during Christmas period. If a kid saved up enough money, he could buy a “Knockout” firework box that had ten sticks of Knockouts. The sounds of Knockouts would be heard from every corner of the villages and towns, till governments banned the use of Knockouts, because they sounded like gunshots. Some Knockouts thrown to the bushes caught fire and caused damages. When Knockouts were banned, it became costlier, and every kid sought for it the more, to use a Knockout was to dare the government and the police.
There would be mass returns to the villages from all part of the country and the world, especially to southern Nigeria. The Igbos of the South-Eastern Nigeria is known for this practise and age-long tradition, which had its history dating back to colonial periods, when men who worked in coal mines and the railway industries would travel back to their villages to celebrate the Christmas feast with their loved ones. In South Eastern Nigeria, over 80% of the population are Christians; hence the festivity would be celebrated with a lot of funfair. Village women would ask their sons and daughters living in cities and towns to return home to celebrate with them, bearing in mind that the return would yield gifts and presents. Some kinsmen would fine their kinsperson who failed to return home for Christmas. Peer groups, age grades and associations would set their annual meetings during the Christmas periods – between 26th December to 31st December.
This mass return to villages in Nigeria was characterised with a lot of advantages: families were connected to their loved ones, especially those who left in January and got engrossed with their works and businesses that they failed to return till the Christmas period. It was a time that people returned home to see the achievement of their peers and to showcase their own achievements. If someone built a nice house in the village, and his peers saw it during the Christmas period, they would begin to build theirs. There were end of the year parties, organized by Town Unions and Associations and fundraisings for community projects, like drilling of boreholes, building of schools, churches, hospitals etc. There were also negativities that surrounded this mass return, because of the volume of cars that plied the roads during the period, Nigeria witnessed an increase in road accidents, increase in crimes as different people moved from one part of the country to the other, armed robbery would increase as young men made haste to make quick money to show off at their towns and villages. The numbers of returnees to the villages would cause over population. This brought along, its own negative effects – unsuspecting teenagers would be impregnated by youths who returned from developed cities like Onitsha, Lagos and Aba. After Christmas, the number of teenage pregnancies reported to clinics would increase. Abortions would not be left out.
Christmas feast in Nigeria would start proper on the 24th of December. In towns like Abakaliki and Enugu, pubs and beer parlours would open till midnight, selling to youths who would drink and shout and dance in jubilation. Motor tyres would be burnt on roadsides and junctions at nights, in Lagos and other cities. And youths would dance around them, singing and drinking beer. Children would organize carols, carrying bands and musical instruments, while moving from house to house to perform and collect money. In villages, children and youths alike wore funny and powerful masquerades and would visit homes, collecting money too. Refusal to give them money in these two occasions was superstitiously associated with bad lucks.
The Catholics would hold their Holy Mass on the eve of Christmas to celebrate the birth of Our Lord. Almost every Catholic would attend this mass. The church choir would perform tantalizing songs and thrill the congregation, singing different versions of “Noel” and “Silent Night”. Outside the church premises, youths would shoot their Knockouts and the priests would keep deaf ears, because they were all part of Christmas fanfare. The Knockouts would be followed by canon-shots to welcome Our Lord into the earth. In my village, even though our church was built with mud and had no windows, we would defy the cold and sit close to each other on dusty pews, listening to the priest deliver long sermons about the birth of the Poor Jesus, in a little hut meant for sheep.
There would be church services on Christmas morning. Every devote Catholic would attend so as to receive the Holy Communion on the day Christ was born. Most of the kids and youths would attend to show off their new designer dresses. Because church services on Christmas attracted everyone in the village or town, women would dress in their specially made clothes of ankara materials, brocade, lace and chiffons, adorned with large and well tied headgears, and new shiny shoes and show off to fellow women and men alike. Young girls would show off their new dresses designed in different styles and fashions. Most children would come to church with toys – toy guns and whistles. Everywhere would become rowdy at the end.
After church service, over an hour would be spent in exchanging pleasantries. Everyone would greet their relations whom they had not seen for long. Admiring their new dresses and cars and motorcycles. Girls would try to catch the eyes of men they hoped would ask them out on dates that may resort to marriages – if a young man had stayed for long without getting a wife, his people would force him to return home during Christmas to search for young girls that were ripe for marriage.
On Christmas day, the air would be different – it would smell differently. The Harmattarn would reduce, as if honouring the birth of Jesus Christ. The sun would reduce its intensity too. Wealthy families would slaughter cows and share some part of it with their relations and friends. Middle class families would form a conglomerate and purchase a cow and share its meat based on the amount each family contributed. The price for cows would escalate and triple during Christmas periods. Followed by those of goats and chickens. People would feed fat their animals to be able to make more money during the festivity period. In the markets all kinds of frauds would take place. Traders would package old clothes and sell them as new ones.
There were stories that goats were forced to drink Gamaline chemicals that would swell up their stomachs and make their owners to increase their price tags – if one purchased these goats, and take them home, after they defecate the chemicals; they would become as tiny as a cigarette. And make you quarrel with your wife for buying a sickly goat. In the Onitsha Main Market, the biggest market in West Africa, there would be thefts and frauds, as hundreds of thousands of people would rush to buy materials, during the rush hour before the Christmas day. You could clutch your handbag, only to notice after, that a part of it had been sliced open using a razor blade. You would lose all your money. A barrow pusher whom you engaged to haul all your goods to the motor park could run away with them as you navigate your way in the fully parked market alleys.
In Nigeria, over a century, rice had become the staple food eaten on Sundays. Every family that did not cook rice on a Sunday was regarded as too wretched to still exist. No matter how poor a family was, the woman of the house would ensure that she saved up enough to buy some cups of rice and tins of tomatoes to be prepared on Sunday. This tradition encroached into Christmas over time – unlike other festivals such as the ojiji, New Yam Festivals, celebrated everywhere around the Southern Nigeria, where different delicacies of mainly various soup and fufu or pounded yam was cooked, Christmas had the tradition of rice as the major food. A census of families that cook other food outside rice in Nigeria could yield a result of just 2% out of the total population of the Christian world in Nigeria. Children would move from home to home, eating food and making merry.
In my family, we would travel to the village from Abakaliki town around the 21st of December and have enough time to visit our families and relations. We would all gather at our grandfather’s compound – a large family compound, housing a lot of buildings, built by my father and his brothers. There would be nights of folklores, and hide and seek games. Stories would be exchanged by my cousins about their schools in Lagos, Enugu, Abakaliki and Abuja. The children would produce toy cars out of cocoanut stems and drive around the large compound.
On Christmas day, after the church service, all the extended family members would gather at the large family compound to kill the cows purchased by my father and my uncles. The youths would help Fulani herdsmen who brought the cows to pull them down using long and hefty ropes. We would watch as they slice open their throats. We would collect the blood into a basin and cook it. We would help to hold the meats as they cut them into pieces, our mothers hauling them to the kitchen with bowls to cook stews and pepper-soups. Pepper-soup is a watery soup cooked with a lot of fresh meat, spices of curry, thyme and onions. There are no oils. Spicy vegetables of utazi are added to it in small quantity and served hot. It is consumed mostly with alcohol – beer and palm wine.
Before noon, most mothers would be done with their cooking. It was a tradition to eat all of their foods. We would gather to drink beer and elderly men would drink palm wine and red wine under large trees that had formed umbrellas. Men, who had little money, would visit the homes of the rich and aristocrats for free alcohol. Children would adorn themselves in their new dresses and move from homes to homes eating rice. When I was a kid, I used to enjoy this. Because we lived in scattered settlements, every home we went to, we would be served rice and stew and mineral drinks, by the time we trekked to another home, we would be hungry and eat again. We used to wear plastic goggles that made the earth to undulate like sea waves when we walked, causing us to try to lift our feet not to fall into the “moving” earth. We would end up walking like drunks.
There used to be masquerade displays at school fields, town and village squares, and market centres until the early 2000s when the church continued to preach and lobby against this practice. They claimed that masquerades were materials for heathen practices and could not be displayed on the day that the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ was being commemorated. In cities, government was convinced to ban masquerade displays because they brought about fights among opposing groups. When masquerades became less popular, football matches took over. We would throng to the fields to watch matches between towns or villages. This matches resulted occasionally to fights too.
Christmas in Nigeria was one festivity that had a unifying power. It would bring together people from various places that had not seen themselves for long. Young people who had just left school would follow their relations and friends who returned for Christmas to the cities, in search of better opportunities. It enhanced economic growth, as goods and services were sought for in higher quantities during Christmas.
Manufacturers of household devices and consumer goods would make a lot of sales. Agricultural firms would produce in abundance and take in a lot of proceeds. Transportation companies would record high turnover as transportation costs were tripled – a trip from Lagos to Enugu in South Eastern Nigeria from January up to around 18th of December was about Three-Thousand-Five-Hundred-Naira, but as soon as the Christmas day drew close, the price would go as high as Six-Thousand Five-Hundred Naira or Nine-Thousand Naira in some cases.
In January 2011, the Federal Government of Nigeria, announced the removal of fuel subsidy and caused an increase in fuel price from Sixty-Five Naira to as high as One-Hundred and Fifty Naira. This led to a sudden hike in transportation costs. Transportation price for Lagos to Southern Nigeria or Southern Nigeria to Lagos increased to as high as about Fifteen-Thousand Naira per trip, leaving hundreds of thousands of southerners stuck in their villages, where they had returned to celebrate the Christmas. This metamorphosed into a lot of economic lost, especially to most people who had returned for Christmas. Most had to sell their properties to raise money to travel back to the cities and towns, having spent all they had for the Christmas festivity. True.
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Novelist and democracy activist, Obinna Udenwe was born in Abakaliki, Nigeria in 1988. He is the author of "The Dancing Bird." He is the winner of the Creative Wings Short Story Prize, the 2009 National Top 12 Award, and African International Achiever 2012. He edited the anthology, "Voices From my Clan" with Mukoma Wa Ngugi. His Stories has appeared in several journals and anthologies.