Unwrapping A Zambian Christmas - feat. Barry Ilunga

We hope you had a wonderful Christmas just a few days ago! Here in the states right now, we’re winding down from the excitement of the lights and food, cleaning up the last bits of our Christmas parties, and still listening to the Christmas carols that we’ve heard since childhood.

As we observe, consciously or subconsciously, the aftermath of surface-level American Christmas traditions, we want to think about the deep meaning of Christmas and the influence that this season has on history and the world.

What better way to do so than explore both the similarities and differences between how Christmas is celebrated here in America and how it is celebrated in Zambia, Africa?

It’s obvious how much we love Zambia, and we want you to love it too.

We had the honor of talking to Barry Ilunga, who is one of our long-time partners who has had an amazing impact on his community in Zambia. He shared with us about how Christmas is celebrated in Zambia, and brought up some important points for us to remember as we celebrate here!

In spite of superficial differences, maybe we’ll find that Christmas, at its core, really isn’t as different as we might think from Africa to America.

When we were talking about the meaning of Christmas, Barry said that “Across the board many Zambians understand that Christmas is the day we remember the birth of Jesus Christ and his Gift of Salvation to the world… It's a joyous and festive time that we all celebrate.” Of course, Christmas all over the world has the same origin story! This makes for such a joyful celebration no matter where you are. “It's a celebration of hope for salvation that has come to all man! That’s the heart of it…”

Christmas in Zambia is a wonderful time of family bonding, where families don’t do many outside activities that day, but spend time with each other. Barry said that “Everyone is home during Christmas. Christmas has always been a great time to reconnect and strengthen family bonds.” In Zambian culture, if you notice anyone who was alone during Christmas, a neighbor or a friend, you invite them to join your family’s celebrations. In preparation for Christmas, parents in Zambia will buy new clothes for all their children, so that everyone looks their very best for Christmas. Barry said that when he was growing up, “it was the norm for everyone to wear their best on Christmas, even if we didn’t go anywhere special,”

Barry said that culturally, their meal would be the best rice and chicken, and that the whole family would be involved in cooking the big meal. After everybody helps with cooking, the food becomes, as Barry said, “an all-you-can-eat buffet that takes you through to the next day.”  He also said that “no one goes hungry on Christmas Day in Zambia” - charitable people and even government organizations will provide food for needy people.

Around 9 or 10 in the morning, Barry said that many people would attend some kind of church service. Other than church, there aren’t many community gatherings during Christmas, since the focus is on the family bonding time. After their return from church, they would get right back to cooking! Once everyone is stuffed, “usually by mid afternoon,” Barry and his family would sit outside to chat or sometimes take a few minutes to visit with neighbors or close friends. Then, in the evenings, “one thing that everyone looks forward to are the fireworks that light up the sky,” You may not see a lot of Christmas trees, but bright celebrations and fireworks, absolutely!

Barry summed up what his Zambian Christmas was like with these meaningful words:

“For me Christmas is and has always been a great time to reflect on the life of Jesus and its purpose and meaning for me. It’s been a time to share God's love with my family and friends, it’s been a time to stop and pause in all my doings and just simply be present for some good old fashioned teamwork, everyone pitches in during Christmas meal preps and it’s always fun and memorable. 

“Many Zambians understand that Jesus is the reason for the season and celebration but not every Zambian completely grasps what this means for them. People will celebrate it differently but one thing that’s for sure is that they will all celebrate it together with their family and there will be plenty of food involved. The music doesn’t have to be loud but the love, joy and gratefulness always is!”


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