Christmas is a big word and moment among Christians all over the universe. The Papacy in Rome like all other Catholic Dioceses and Parishes with their huge adherents will be celebrating Christmas this year as it is done every passing year. And so is for all Christian families and persons with their relatives, friends and colleagues. African societies enjoy Christmas out-doors unlike the western communities that stay in-doors, including the obvious magnification of malls or shopping centers to dignify Christmas.
With the caption of this essay above, a previous version of this article was published by Chinaka Okoro in The Nation of 26/12/2009 under special report. The version here has been revised by the present writer whom Chinaka Okoro quoted extensively in the article. Having considered the significance of the topic, it fits the Christmas moment and it is therefore important as I see it to share not only what is Christmas to a people but also to offer some insight on how the Igbo of Nigeria celebrate Christmas year after year. Credit is given to Chinaka Okoro for the perspective of this contribution to highlight the symbolism of Christmas and its cultural immersion by the Igbo of Nigeria, including all other related cultures across the world.
At this time of the year, it’s the goings on with celebration galore all over the world as is the wont at Christmas every time. From the beginning of the week, peaking on Christmas Day of each year, the whole of Christendom would be engulfed in frenzy of celebration, caroling and showing all forms of care, support and generosity to others. Christmas cards and all sorts of gifts, mails and phone calls will exchange hands and voices. The less privileged in society, individuals and families are targeted for charity and support. Religious spirit and compassion are highlighted. The unique birth of Jesus Christ as the King of Life and Eternity is venerated.
That is, it is the season all Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the originator of Christianity. “Christ-mas” was derived from an old English phrase Christes Maesse, which means Mass of Christ. The term was first used in A.D 1038. Though the debate on the actual date of birth of Jesus, the Redeemer still rages, some theological scholars have maintained that He was born in October, while majority stick to the December 25 date.
However, biblical historians are of the view that Christmas was initially celebrated on January 6, a day which was also observed as an official Roman holiday. This was from A.D. 534, before Pope Julius 1 changed the date to December 25. Biblical pundits have hinted that while Christianity was at its infant stage, Easter used to be the main holiday for the Christian community in most parts of the world until the 4th Century A.D. when the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and observe same date as a holiday, just a few years after the ascension of Christ to heaven when Christian leaders met at Nicene, Italy.
Despite over-stretched arguments and stiff opposition put up by some Christian sects and dominations, December 25 has gained world-wide acceptance of over 95 per cent of Christendom as the birth date of the Redeemer. To prepare for Christmas, Christians have a four-week period known as Advent which means "a coming." This glorious period, for Christians, ends on January 6 which is the Epiphany – a Christian festival commemorating the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Magi (The three wise men).
Christmas is, perhaps, the only festival that is celebrated with an equal amount of joy and excitement the world over. The entire Christian community and even some non-Christians eagerly long for December 25, every year to be soaked in fun and festivity. The period, unarguably, has been regarded as the ideal time to get away from the hustle and bustle of life to share some good moments with family and friends. It is a time when city-dwellers travel to their towns and villages to celebrate with their kith and kin. The glamour, glitz and pomp which are some of the features of Christmas celebration tend to make it cut the picture of banality, as the essence of Christmas, experts maintain, is not in wining and dining.
Commenting on present-day celebration of Christmas, Dr. Ariri Chidomere, a Prof. of Old Testament Studies, Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, opined: "Christmas should be a reminder to mankind of those unequaled virtues of Christ Jesus whose birth we celebrate. But contrary to this, we perceive Christmas as a period to dine and wine with friends and relations and engage in some untoward activities."
Continuing, the one-time Head of Department of Religion noted that "the way we go about celebrating Christmas tends to suggest that the whole essence of Christ’s redemptive coming is lost on mankind. We celebrate Christmas in such a manner that more sins are committed than we were before we were redeemed by Christ. Our entire actions smack of Christianity without Christ."
Prof. Chidomere’s view corroborates those of Bishop Kevin Manning, Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, Australia, who argues, sadly, that "many modern-day approaches to Christmas tend to paganize, manipulate or dismiss the mystery by trivializing, commercializing, or banalizing the Nativity. It requires tiny effort to overlook a tiny child lying in a manger, but one can hardly do so when it is God’s way of accomplishing salvation."
Bishop Manning’s assertion aptly captures the fact that, overtime; many have lost the favour of Christmas. It becomes more potent when one looks at the trend today to notice the motley of the ‘unchristian’ approach to the effect that many engage in criminal activities that precede the celebration of the Yuletide.
The world over, every community has its peculiar way of celebrating Christmas. But for the purpose of this write-up, our attention is focused on how the Igbo of Nigeria who inhabit the eastern former eastern region celebrate Christmas. In truth, the Igbo people are very enterprising. They are the only ethnic group, it can be argued, that leave their families and homes en masse to live in the cities to seek for ways to better their lot. They could live in the cities for almost the whole of the year. But one thing majority of them would not do is to celebrate Christmas outside their village or home town. That informs the spirit of hard work which they exhibit. This is to ensure that they gather enough money with which they go home for the Christmas celebration. They do this because the communal life they live as umunna would require them to give gifts to their kith and kin when they get back home.
Celebrating Christmas at home is considered typically cultural and it is curiously expected of anyone living in town or abroad to re-connect with the home people during Christmas time. All of this curiosity is heaped with thinking of one another and sharing gifts of different kinds. Reciprocity, the spirit of giving and receiving – which we often talk about, is largely lived out by the Igbo at Christmas.
Unfortunately, this spirit of giving to their fellow men when they go home and for which they work hard in order to make enough money for all, as it were, has been misconstrued in many quarters to mean that the average Igbo man becomes someone to watch out for, rip off another, or a criminal, as Christmas approaches in order to amass resources to spend at home.
However, the above does not indicate that there are no handfuls of them who engage themselves in crummy lifestyles in order to have enough which they would flaunt as they go home. For instance, it has become a trend that as Christmas celebration approaches, hot day and night business or criminal activities tend to peak. This is not peculiar to the Igbo; it cuts across all societies or ethnic groups. This happens because of the manner people of means are literally worshipped not minding the source of their wealth. It is a national phenomenon to look for that wealth, amass wealth and live as a big man or guy to belong as those who own the land and make things happen.
However, to the average Igbo man, the village is the main thing. Far and near, sons and daughters return home, besiege their respective villages not only to celebrate Christmas with their kith and kin, but to also show off the wealth they have been able to accumulate over the year. It is an avenue for many families to boast about their illustrious sons and daughters of whom they are proud.
Of course, the Igbo are an enterprising lot, as aforementioned, but this partly accounts for the agility and tireless attitude to work of many of them in the cities. They don’t want to be found wanting during Christmas and the New Year festivities. The Igbo, it has been said, love to show off and flaunt what they have. They do this more than any other ethnic group in Nigeria. But that’s quite normal if they made their wealth through the right means. They take pride in their holdings and sharing that pride with everyone.
Having said this, it has to be stated that the majority of Igbo who go home annually for the celebration of Christmas are not among those who soil their hands in order to make money to flaunt at home. Majority of them have genuine businesses which yield them equally genuine money with which they take care of their kith and kin at home. Like every other related society, the Igbo gave prosperous and zealous business people – men and women who engage in promoting services and developments of their areas through their hard work and clean business lives and activities.
This therefore indicates that not all Igbo engage in fraudulent business activities in order to make money at all costs for the society to recognize and worship them. Rather, Christmas brings a moment in a year when all Igbo or majority of them living outside Igboland return to their villages to reunite with their kith and kin who they have not seen, probably since one year or more.
As a matter of fact, one of the most important events in Igboland is Christmas and it signifies homecoming for those who have left their villages for some time. Even though they live most of the time in the cities, Igbo families consider their houses in their villages as their only real home. It is the two weeks during Christmas that bring families back together to their villages and a time to catch up with other family members on what has happened over the year.
From December 14, the Igbo who would surely travel home, would have started preparing. Activities in the car parks, airports, would increase. If you visit any park in Lagos or other big cities where the Igbo live in large numbers and where vehicles plying the Eastern routes of Nigeria are stationed and canvassing for passengers; you will encounter some motley of would-be travelers. This is because, according to Chief Patrick Iroegbu, the Igbo love Christmas and they celebrate it to the best of their “cultural heart and soul”.
As Patrick Iroegbu recalls, Christmas is called kresimesi in Igbo parlance. Every child is raised to adore it and to see it as a wonderful moment to share the joy of the birth of Jesus Christ. In Igboland, he points out that the concept of ‘Father Christmas’, popularly known as Santa Claus, is realized in the expression of a popular cultural networking whereby everyone visits everyone else to share meals, gifts, money, snuff, drinks, clothes, jewelries, and stories. No one person dresses like Santa Claus to hand out gifts. Santa Claus is therefore symbolized in parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and guests who come by and appreciate one another.
According to Chief Patrick Iroegbu, the Ezumezu I of Agbaja-Mbano of Igbo land, Christmas provides an enduring unofficial or oral invitation. Visiting and being visited also provides the opportunity to share and relate with one another. He noted that the celebration of Christmas affords Ndi Igbo the opportunity to embark on one self-help projects or the other. Private and public events for developments are also carried out.
"Again, families discuss some pressing issues; settle grudges or disputes and grievances. Christmas is not merely a season to show off but a season to show your people that you have returned home alive after being probably one year away in the city and you have to share your success or otherwise with your people.
"I do not subscribe to the demoralizing notion that the Igbo work hard in order to flaunt wealth. Rather, they work hard to bring development to their families and villages. The Igbo are migrant-entrepreneurs as we are noticeably out-going, solidly adaptive and immensely competitive. Christmas in Igboland is a celebration of life with our families, friends and neigbhours." No other ethnic group can beat the Igbo in the festivity of Christmas – as though culturally, the Igbo people of Nigeria and wherever they may live in and work are typically and excitably religious.
All said, it is incontrovertible that not only the Igbo work from January to November, and make all the money they could make waiting for just one month to squander all they had saved in a year, using Christmas celebration as a subterfuge. Many have seen Christmas as a period to have a party, get drunk, and spend money they don’t have or need elsewhere, and over-eat.
The frenzy with which people buy, sell and present gifts to others at Christmas smacks of the day being commercialized. Some yet see Christmas as a period for wardrobe renewal, home re-painting and renovation and exchange of gifts among loved ones and families accompanied by endless flow of assorted drinks and luxury dishes. Christmas is loved by the Igbo of Nigeria as the love of Christmas is highly regarded as a season of worship, socialization, marriage, family, and community development. Notably also, it is a season of commensality, peace and joy to the world of their neighbours.
It is a given in Igbo language that to celebrate Christmas everyone can ask another expected to doll out gifts or money or favours by saying biko gbara m kresimesi which translates to mean, “please do Christmas for me”. Begging for help, favour or for a gift at Christmas is culturally endorsed and governed. At this time therefore, say to every-one of Igbo around you biko gbara m Christmas. Let me say it well, merrily and judiciously too, in God and with gifts and prayers, “Happy Christmas” to all of you, my reader, friends!