Embracing Christmas Celebrations in Burundi

A Burundian Christmas 

By Aline Nizigama

Haguruka Burundian Women Association

The Republic of Burundi is a small landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley at the junction of the African Great Lakes region and East Africa. It is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and southeast, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west; Lake Tanganyika lies along its southwestern border.

In Burundi, Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the population, primarily the Christian community. The holiday is marked with various religious and cultural traditions. However, the way Christmas is celebrated can vary depending on the region, family traditions, and religious practices.

Under the tree

Religion, traditions, and togetherness have a central place in this season. Burundi is composed of a majority of Christians at about 60 percent Catholics,15 percent Protestants and Anglicans. Then about 20-25 percent of the population adheres to traditional indigenous beliefs and religions; and finally, Muslims who number around 5 percent.

Leading up to Christmas, which usually marks a high rainy season in Burundi, there is usually a sense of bustling joy; the mood is quite festive. It is one of the most celebrated holidays in the countries. The landscape is usually lush and green at this time of the year. Burundians unite as families, and in community to celebrate together. Traditionally, the Christmas eve mass is well attended and goes till midnight, often broadcasting messages from the Vatican and the Pope. Families attend mass together in their best attire.

Churches play a significant role in Christmas celebrations. Many people attend special Christmas church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. These services often include prayers, hymns, sermons, and reenactments of the Nativity story.

Christmas drums

At homes in the town, cities, and villages, traditional dishes are prepared and shared. In some areas, goat or chicken may be prepared as a special dish for the occasion. In the rural areas, festive dishes include rice and beans, plantain and goat skewers. In the city, the menu often includes rice pilao, spicy rice, avocado salad, fresh fruit salad, and fried/roasted ‘igitoki’ (plantain), one of Burundi’s favorite dishes.

Music and dance are integral parts of Burundian culture and are often incorporated into Christmas celebrations. People might sing Christmas carols in Kirundi or French or perform traditional dances during the festivities. Children typically prepare performances for their local church.

Bringing the tree home

To help protect the environment, it is now against the law to cut down trees for Christmas, and so people revert to using palm fronds and banana leaves. In many areas of the countryside, there is often no electricity, so people get creative using local means. Burundi may not be decorated in the same way this season as in other countries, but the whole country is in a festive mood. Still, everyone gets dressed up, and a few decorations are put up.

When it comes to gifts, children usually get a new outfit, often custom made. Kids who have worked hard all year are specially rewarded. This being a time of giving, some communities engage in charitable activities, such as giving food, clothes, or gifts to the less fortunate. In the rural parts of Burundi, people carry gifts on their head in ornate baskets often decorated with banana leaves.

Burundi has a diverse cultural heritage, and so, some Christmas celebrations may incorporate traditional customs and rituals alongside Christian practices. Traditional banana beer is prepared days in advance indicating how important bananas are in the Burundian diet and culture. 

In some regions, communities in the country as well as in the diaspora celebrate with spontaneous singing and dancing, revising traditional rhythms.

Christmas in Burundi is undoubtedly a time of joy, togetherness, and celebration, combining religious observances with cultural traditions unique to the country.

In this time of heightened generosity, think about donating to Haguruka Burundian Women Association based in Toronto. Murakoze (Thank you in Kiriudi pronounced ‘moo-rah-koh-zeh’)!

 Noheli nziza (Merry Christmas)!