Christmas in Nigeria (West Africa)
Updated: May 29
A Brief History
The Bantu people first migrated out of present-day eastern Nigeria and spread across Sub-Saharan Africa around 1000-800 BC. The Kingdom of Benin emerged around 1250 BC. Based on oral tradition, Benin began as a clusters of hunter, gatherer and agriculturalist families. By 1300, the Empire was known for trading and the arts. They produced items made of copper, bronze and brass. The Benin bronzes are some of the most famous pieces produced in Africa. Benin’s government started out as hierarchical, with an Ogiso (King of the Sky) as the head of state, and seven powerful nobles (uzama). The 15th and 16th century was a golden age for Benin, marked by economic and political power. They expanded their territory with military campaigns and began trading with Europeans, especially the Portuguese. Benin exchanged palm oil, ivory, cloth, pepper and slaves for metals, salt, cloth, guns and powder. Benin was desperate to maintain trade with the Portuguese, because the guns they supplied gave them an advantage over their neighbors. They had tried to manufacture their own, but failed. The king of Portugal threatened to end gun trade unless they adopted Christianity, although this failed, Portugal continued to supply guns because the slave trade was too lucrative for either nation to end.
During the 1700s Benin began a slow decline as its neighbors also gained access to European firearms. The country was further weakened by civil wars due to internal strife over the royal succession. This left them vulnerable to European domination. In 1897 Britain forced them into the Niger Coast Protectorate after burning the Benin City and destroying much of their treasured arts and sending the remaining pieces to London.
Because of its more than 250 ethnic and linguistic groups (over 250), Nigeria was divided into 21 states, which eased some of the political tensions caused by such diversity. The British eventually outlawed slavery and had to use force to assure the practice was eradicated.
Nigeria became independent in 1960, becoming a federal republic in 1963.Nigeria’s official name is The Federal Republic of Nigeria. It has the largest population of any African country.
As with a number of African countries, Christianity came to Nigeria via Scottish Presbyterian mission work. The most famous of these missionaries was Mary Slessor. Inspired by accounts of the life of her missionary hero, David Livingstone, Mary chose become a missionary in Africa. Called the White Queen of Calabar or ‘white ma,’ she spent the last thirty-eight years of her life ministering among the natives in Nigeria. She ultimately became the first woman to be featured on Scottish currency, replacing that of David Livingstone on the 10 pound note in Scotland beginning in 1998. The majority of African students attending Scottish universities during the 19th century came from Nigeria. Even today there is a strong affinity for Scotland in Nigeria.
Nigeria is now a country almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians in its religious demographic. However, Nigerians tend to have no problem assimilating traditions from various beliefs into their lives. Therefore, Christmas is a public holiday and celebrated by many who do not even understand the true meaning of the event, as well as by Christians. For Nigerians, Christmas is a time for visiting relatives and old friends; this is why it is important to many Christians to return to their ancestral towns to celebrate with their loved ones. Nigerians enjoy church, carnivals, all-night Christmas Eve parties, firecrackers, and hours-long Christmas services. People decorate their houses, shops, streets and churches with palm fronds, which by tradition symbolize peace. There are also paper decorations and lights everywhere. New clothes to wear to Christmas church service is an important part of the celebration as well.
As with most Christmas celebrations around the world, food is an essential part of the celebrations in Nigeria. It is traditional to prepare iyan (pounded yam with vegetable stew and hot chili) to offer to visitors and it is considered impolite to decline. A typical meal for Christmas lunch is rice with chicken stew or jollof rice which is boiled rice with stew, chilies and fish mixed in. Also popular is moin-moin (also called moyin-moyin) which is black eyed peas topped with a mixture of vegetable oil, chopped liver, small pieces of chicken, beef, fish or prawn, and diced boiled eggs wrapped in large leaves and then boiled. Also, Christmas feasting would not be complete without the Christmas cake. Exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols are also an important part of the celebration. The Christmas finale includes fire crackers such as ‘biscos’ or ‘bangers.’
There are many languages spoken in Nigeria. Merry Christmas in Yoruba is “E ku odun, e ku iye'dun”; in Fulani it is "Jabbama be salla Krismati."
Nigeria is a bi-religious country, with about half of the populous practicing Christianity and the other half Islam. The northern portion of Nigeria is predominantly Muslim, including being governed by strict Islamic Sharia Law. The predominantly Christian Yoruba and Igbo people populate the south. According to the Open Doors World Watch List, Christians in Northern Nigeria are severely limited in their ability to practice their faith. Many people have suffered harm at the hands of Muslim extremists. Please pray for persecuted Christians in the north. Pray for peace in Nigeria between the many diverse groups, and for the growth of Christianity throughout Nigeria.