By Carl Stagner
“I’ll be home for Christmas” might be the popular refrain among families spread across North America this time of year, but often included among those who can’t be home for the holidays are our Church of God missionaries. While there are some aspects of the season they miss—family, friends, foods, and familiar sights and sounds—there are some things about Christmas in America that they’ve learned to live without. Looking past the rampant commercialization and materialism attached to the holiday here, Christmas celebrations in many other countries have their own appeal, and have much to teach us, too. The Church of God in Côte d’Ivoire offers one example.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Christmas shopping lists aren’t nearly as long as they are in the US, as gift-exchanges don’t play a major role, and certain foods aren’t recognized as holiday staples. Christmas there does not conjure up images of sugar plums dancing in the heads of children, nor does it bring to mind Black Friday sales, Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas,” or Frosty the Snowman (in fact, Côte d’Ivoire’s tropical climate would no doubt cause Frosty to “get all wishy-washy!”). Even decorations are downplayed. Larry Sellers, longtime Church of God missionary to Côte d’Ivoire, explains.
“Christmas decorations are not traditional in Africa and, if present, have only been relatively recently introduced in imitation of what is seen on television or other Western media.”
Christmas caroling, though an annual experience for churches this side of the Atlantic, is not a part of the celebration in Côte d’Ivoire. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Christmas carols, these songs, especially in French-speaking African countries, aren’t well-known. This isn’t a problem for Christians in Côte d’Ivoire, as they have a sizeable repertoire of worship music sung throughout the year. Though not distinctively Christmas, their music is nothing to dismiss. With energy and enthusiasm, the Church of God in Côte d’Ivoire certainly knows how to celebrate and lift up the name of Jesus (more on this later!).
For Christians in Côte d’Ivoire, Christmas boils down to the basics: Jesus, family, the church, and friends. “The elements that characterize Christmas for African Christians are visiting family and friends, ending the old year and starting the new year strong with rejoicing, thanksgiving, and prayer, and having a special feast to share with others if funds permit,” Larry explains.
He adds that there is one notable material element to the season that can’t be ignored: new clothes for the new year. “Often for Christmas, and especially New Year’s, it is common to see a whole family proudly march into church with brand-new matching outfits on displaying bright colors and exuberant patterns. In many cases, parents will sacrifice for months to have the money to get these outfits confectioned before the end of the year. So, this becomes the busiest season of the year for tailors and seamstresses.”
Perhaps the most unique part of the Christmas and New Year celebration in Côte d’Ivoire is their all-night worship services known in French as veillées (vigils). Every year on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, almost all our local churches host them. On Christmas Eve, worshipers gather at 9 or 10 at night and don’t leave until 5 or 6 in the morning. On New Year’s Eve, worshipers only stay until about 1 or 2 in the morning, but even this would likely astound the most committed churchgoer in Western culture. But for the Church of God in Côte d’Ivoire, Christmas isn’t about spending the day at home anyway; it’s about activities away from home. That’s why it’s not at all surprising that, after the all-night Christmas Eve service, people will often get together for a meal on Christmas morning or later in the day. “After the celebrations,” Larry explains, “families will parade down the streets in their new outfits, visiting their neighbors and other family or church members. Unlike Western culture, Africans rarely stay home on Christmas or New Year’s Day, but take time to visit one another, sharing food with each other when possible. There are no parades, bowl games, or sporting events to watch on TV—everyone is too busy to stay home to watch them!”
Back to the all-night services. Larry says they go by surprisingly quickly, as they are chock-full of activity. Numerous songs are sung, extensive prayers are prayed, dances and skits are performed, and one to two sermons are preached. When drowsy young children, in particular, fall asleep, no one bats an eye. In fact, it’s normal to see pieces of cloth on the ground with children and babies sleeping, even amid the raucous celebration. Especially on New Year’s, the celebration is notably raucous: “At midnight, everyone bursts into shouts of joy, dancing, hugging, and yelling to celebrate the beginning of a new year.”
Missionaries Bobby and Jenny Mihsill have only been in Côte d’Ivoire for a couple of Christmas seasons so far, but they, too, have observed these fascinating differences in culture. As they coordinate the country’s Children of Promise program, they observe the joy on the children’s faces when they receive new Christmas clothing, too. But even as they rejoice in the ministry to which God has called them, homesickness can creep in from time to time.
“We miss being with our families and having a house-full of activity with family members all around,” Jenny reflects. “I miss the cold weather, cuddling in a blanket, watching Christmas movies, and eating all the Christmas goodies! Bobby, who is from Shillong, Meghalaya, India, also misses the church and community traditions from his home.”
Larry and LeAnn Sellers also have a soft spot for the Christmas traditions of home, and have learned to replicate some of them, with an African flair, of course.
So, would you pray for all our missionaries who cannot make it home this Christmas? Don’t forget to pray for our brothers and sisters whose Christmas celebrations can remind us what matters most.
Learn about our missionaries to Côte d’Ivoire, and discover opportunities for support, at www.chogglobal.org.