No carols, no decorated trees, no exchanges of gifts—Christmas in Tanzania is simply a religious festival—a situation for which many a priest and pastor has long expressed yearning. Rev. Dr. Sandra McCann, the “accidental” Episcopal priest/missionary whose work we chronicled a few weeks ago, has been posted for ten years to Msalao Theological College in Dodomo, Tanzania. She has participated in many an exuberant Sunday religious service in her parish—“each church has a minimum of four choirs, and everybody gets to sing”—but she has always been on leave in the States at Chrismastime.
Tanzanian churches range from the cathedral in Dodomo to outdoor services to a humble shack.
So Rev. Dr. McCann asked the Rev. Canon Moses Matonya, Dean of Msalato Theological College, to draw us a picture. “We normally start to celebrate Christmas by attending what we call the “Mkesha wa Krismas” [“the Eve of Christmas”] service on December 24, beginning at 8 p.m. and going to around 2 a.m. on December 25,” he wrote. “Then we would have Christmas services on December 25, beginning at 7 a.m. We do not celebrate Christmas on the Sunday before, and we do not have Christmas carols as is done in the West. Traditionally we did not have Christmas trees, gifts, cards, etc., but all these are newly done today because of influence from the West. People tend to go house to house to share food and drinks [sodas, not alcoholic beverages] as a way of making Christmas special.
“Traditionally, the climax of any Tanzanian celebration is reached by people eating and drinking together. So we do this for Christmas as well. We read the famous passages—the ones from Luke and Mathew about the birth stories of Jesus.”
An Anglican church service, whether held outdoors or in mud churches without windows or in the cathedral (where the bishop presides) follows the Anglican prayer book liturgy of morning prayer or Holy Communion. Many of the hymns are English hymns sung in the Swahili language. To this traditional service there is an added Tanzanian effervescence. Choirs drum and dance in their tribal style, often acting out the stories of the Biblical passages read that day. There are very few “frozen chosen” in the Anglican church of Tanzania.
The Uwaki choir at St. Mary’s Church, Idifu, Tanzania. The members are singing, in Swahili, an adaptation of Jeremiah 33:3: “Let us call The Lord and he will answer us, and he will tell us great hidden things.”
“Most people don’t have watches or clocks in the villages,” Sandra said to me. “One man said to her, “Sandy, you Westerners have the watches, but we Africans have the time.” And it’s so true. They gather after they do their morning chores, with some people arriving at the church an hour, an hour and a half before the service begins. They just sit in the church and sing. They sing at funerals, too. Funerals are held in people’s homes. The whole day and all night long people will stay there, and some are singing most of the time; the women in one area and the men in another.
“Nothing can be done without singing and dancing. After the first reading, the youth choir will sing. And then the mothers’ union choir will sing, and then the men will sing, and the children’s choir, and the young adult choir. There may be just a few people who get together because they like to sing. So there will be many, many different choirs singing during the service.
“Every choir must get its time.”
St. Mary’s Church, Idifu, after a service.
Rev. Dr. McGann estimates that more than 40 percent of the population of Tanzania is Christian, though old surveys say roughly a third of the population is Muslim, a third Christian, and a third traditionalists, with the remainder being Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’i, etc. “There’s so much Christian proselytizing,” she says, “I estimate that in 25 years Christians will be half the population.” In Tanzania, Muslim and Christian holidays are treated with equal respect; schools are closed on the holidays of both faiths. And since independence from Great Britain (as Tanganyika) in 1961, the country has had alternating Christian and Muslim presidents.
There are 265 parishes in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, with an average of five or six churches to a parish. When a priest invites Sandra to come to preach, people from all the churches in the parish will show up, and “almost every church will send its Mothers’ Union choir. So there are many, many, songs and presentations of music at every service that I attend.
“There are no Black Fridays or Walmart brawls or underwear-company exhortations to ‘have a manly Christmas’ in Tanzania,” the Rev. Dr. McCann wrote us. “For now, Christmas remains a holy day to celebrate with community and family.”