Saturday, January 14, 2012

Christmas in Burkina Faso

As I have told you, my daughter Dawn, her husband Jay, and their two children, Annie and Jesse were with me for Christmas this year.  After we left Ranch Nazinga, where we saw all the animals, we went to my village to prepare for the holiday.  Things are done a bit differently here than in the US, as you might expect.

Burkina Christmas Customs
While you may see plastic Christmas trees in the big cities where there are lots of foreigners, in the village the only kind of Christmas decoration you find is a crèche that Christian families may build by the gate to their courtyard. These are usually built by the children. Here is an example of one. It probably does not look like a crèche to you, but if you looked inside you would find clay figures of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.

Gift giving at Christmas time is not a usual thing.  You probably try to have your children have new clothes for Christmas.  If you have money to spare, you might buy one gift for each child, but none of the kind of over abundance of presents that you find in many American homes. There is not an exchange of gifts between adults or with friends.

Probably less than half the people in the country are Christian. Most of the others are Muslim, although there are many who follow the traditional religion to a greater or lesser extent, sometimes along with Islam or Christianity.  One nice thing about Burkina Faso is the religious tolerance.  Actually, acceptance of people regardless of their religion might be a better way to put it. Many families have some people who are Catholic, some who are Protestant and some who are Muslim. Most people celebrate all the holidays of both Christianity and Islam. On the Muslim holidays, the Muslim families prepare a great feast and they are visited by all their friends and neighbors, regardless of religion.  In the same way, the Christians prepare a big feast for Christmas and Easter and the Muslims come to share the feast with them. I described Tebaski in a blog last year, when I went with an important Burkinabè man to the feast at his house as well as at the home of his secretary and later at the home of the cabinet minister for who he works. Last year on Christmas day Janet and her family were busy painting my living room and I was not prepared for all the visitors who showed up. 

My Christmas

This year I decided to be prepared.  On December 24 Dawn and I fired up my Dutch oven and we baked several batches of brownies. In Ouaga we had purchased a number of jars of prepared American style spaghetti sauce and lots of spaghetti. We made Koolaid Pink Lemonade and had some candy Dawn had brought, too.

Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve we went to the Catholic Church for the Midnight Mass. The church is quite a large one, probably seating about 2000 (with people crowded next to each other on the benches, as they do here). The church was only about half full, but there was still a good crowd.  In the processional the priest carried a baby doll to represent Jesus, and placed it in the crèche in front of the alter. As he did so, many of the women let out that yell that is called ululating.  There was lots of singing by the two choirs, one that sang in Moore and one that sang in French.  This is the choir that sang in Moore.

There were a couple of hymns Dawn recognized, but the only one I knew was the processional, Silent Night.  With all the ululating, it was definitely NOT silent in the church! Of course we did not understand a thing that was said, but you didn’t need to understand the language to understand the feeling of celebration. The congregation and the choir moved to the music, dancing in place.

Christmas Baptism

Christmas morning Mass was a time for some babies to be baptized, among them, Prosper and Martine’s baby, Jean Crystosome. Dawn took Jesse’s good camera and we sat up front to get good pictures of the event.   Moms and babies were seated in the front row, with dads behind them.

As with weddings, it is the custom for people with cameras to crowd around the principals and take lots of pictures of them. At first Dawn wasn’t sure it would be OK, but when she saw what others were doing, she got in there and got some good pictures.  There were about 20 babies being baptized.  These were the ones who were not able to be present when most of the new babies for the year were baptized back in November.

Prosper and Martine’s baby was not to happy to have water poured over his head!

There  were five people who were celebrating the 25th anniversary of their baptism At the end of the mass they were recognized and lead a dance around the church.

Dawn is the pastor of a small church in Nelson, New Hampshire.  The New Hampshire Association of the United Church of Christ (UCC) gave her a clerical stole to present to a church in Burkina Faso. There are not UCC churches here, and we attended the Catholic mass, so it seemed appropriate to give the gift to the church. We told one of my friends she would like to see the priest after the service to give him a gift to the church from some churches in America.  Imagine our surprise when, at the end of the mass the reader announced that there was to be a presentation from a church in America. I managed to mumble a few words in French trying to explain, and the priest said, “Thank You!” in English. He seemed to be pleased with the gift and put it on over the other robs he was wearing. Maybe you can make out the word "Holy" that is embroidered on the stole.

After the service the thing to do is to take pictures of your kids by the crèche. Here is Jean Crystosome and his mom and dad. (Notice baby Jesus lying in the traditional woven African material.)

Christmas Visitors 

When we returned to the house we prepared for visits from neighbors.  We had quite a few people stop by, but not as many as we might have had.  They arrived in twos and threes and we were able to serve them on the porch with the few dishes I own.

 And that was my Christmas.  Hope yours was a good one!


  1. Jan, I'm writing a book about Christmas around the world to be published by a British press called Reaktion. I was wondering if I could have your permission to include the photo of the clay creche in that book. I think it is a very clear picture, and little is written about Christmas in Burkina Faso, so I wanted to represent it accurately in an image. Sincerely, Tara (we could email about this if you can respond to this comment, and I could give you more details)

  2. I would be pleased to have you use this picture. More people to say "Where in the world is Burkina Faso?"

  3. Great! If you could email me the photo file and a note saying you will permit me to publish the photo in Reaktion's press's *Christmas* (which will come out in 2013), that would great. You will be given attribution of the image, and then I will have your contact in case we need to ask you anything else. It is very kind of you.

    My email is

    I've enjoyed reading your blog.