Christmas in the UK and the wider western world is a time of relaxation spent with family where eating, drinking and gift giving are the major parts of the holiday. As December comes around, the festive spirit hits the streets of the UK with bright lights, Christmas trees and decorations, not to mention the constant commercial reminders through TV adverts, shopping deals and Father Christmas. However, while Christmas has become commercialised and traditions spread across the world, there are still many countries which have a very different and unique experience of the Christmas period. I’ve looked into how Christmas is celebrated in Uganda, which at times does resemble some of the traditions in the UK, but with some interesting cultural differences.
Christmas in Uganda is the most important holiday of the year and is celebrated on the 25th December, known as Sekukkulu, a term used to denote how big the day is. Everything stops for Sekukkulu, with people returning home to their families and communities in both urban and rural areas. Most official businesses are put on hold all resulting in the price of food and travel becoming incredibly high. Major city authorities organise Christmas carolling and many Christian choirs participate with the lighting of giant Christmas trees across the cities. ‘Sekukkulu ennugi’ is the expression heard around the streets translating to something similar to ‘merry Christmas’.
As Uganda is a predominantly Christian country, the birth of Jesus Christ is the centre of the celebrations with festivities beginning the night before with a ‘watch night’ where church is attended and preparations for the feast on Sekukkulu take place with children traditionally helping to prepare the home and food for the following day. On Sekukkulu the churches are filled to capacity even by those who do not normally attend and Christmas carols are sung in a tradition similar to that in the UK. People wear their new clothes, especially women who get to show off their traditional dresses and headwear. Lack of electricity is often not a problem as churches are decorated with candles and rich colours creating a festive atmosphere.
As for the Sekukkulu feast itself, chicken plays a central role for families and is seen as a luxury meal not eaten many times throughout the year. After the chicken is smoked, it is well seasoned and wrapped in smoked banana leafs and then steamed together with the matoke, a traditional Ugandan starchy staple food made from plantains enjoyed all year round. On top of the bananas and chickens, different types of meats are cooked and served with sweet potatoes and rice. The method of steaming food wrapped in banana leaves is unique to Ugandan cuisine and gives a taste which cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world.
Sekukkulu is not about the giving and receiving of presents as it is in the western world but instead about spending time with family, enjoying music and food. After the major feast it is time for storytelling, games, dancing and singing. The Sekukkulu celebrations continue into the early hours of the morning when families and friends dance all night knowing that everything is closed on the 26th of December.