Celebrating the Christmas Story in Tanzania
Come with us. Come. In your imagination now travel to Kiagata Parish in Musoma Diocese in northwestern Tanzania. Three days before Christmas an African Christmas Hut (the traditional Christmas Crib in the form of a small African hut) is prepared in the sanctuary of the church. The tall shepherds with their cows and sheep portray a pastoral scene very close to the rural farming community in Kiagata. Bright red, green, and yellow African cloths hang from the ceiling. Long cords hold up rows of pictures and cards. On Christmas Eve afternoon the carved figures of Mary and Joseph are placed in the open hut, “tired” after their long journey from Nazareth.
The Christmas Liturgy begins at nine p.m. The priest reads the Gospel of Luke in Swahili … “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The priest stops. In a small procession with candles an altar boy reverently carries the carved figure of the infant Jesus and places him in the manger. With no electricity in the church the flickering candles dramatically highlight the manger scene.
A wave of singing, clapping and drumming reverberates through the church. From the back of the church a group of men and women of the Kuria Ethnic Group rhythmically dance forward to the beat of shakers and drums. They sing the traditional Kuria song We Come to the Home of the Child just as they do when a baby is born in the village. As they dance in front of the African Christmas hut the women and girls trill with joy. A sea of clapping, trilling, and joyful excitement sweeps through the whole church. After the singing and dancing the priest finishes reading the gospel. All the people sing with joy a popular Swahili Christmas song: The Lord Jesus Christ Has Been Born. It Is Certain.
Three people who take the parts of the narrator, the angel, and the shepherds can also read the gospel. The choir can sing verse 14. At times a Christmas Pageant Play can be performed after the second reading, after the gospel, or after the night Eucharist itself. These plays are an excellent way of retelling the Christmas story in a contemporary African setting.
Children are a great value in African society. Children are new life. Children are the future. A Swahili saying is children are a blessing. A mother giving birth is a joyful community event. There is an African custom of visiting the newborn infant in his or her home. Visitors bring gifts of money, flour, soap and eggs. As a religious parallel Christians visit the African Christmas hut in church and leave a small donation to honor the Christ Child. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Yes, sing again: The Lord Jesus Christ Has Been Born. It Is Certain.
Rev. Joseph Healey, M.M.