My Christmas in Abidjan is sure to be one I will never forget. For starters it never really felt like Christmas: yes it was warm, but I’ve celebrated xmas under the sun before. I think it was the absence of Christmas songs chiming incessantly on the radio and in every supermarket, the absence of the Christmas shopping rush, and the first time I haven’t been surrounded by family, that made me forget it was December.
I was actually very surprised by the light displays around the city, my one reminder that we were in the middle of the festive season. Roundabouts had big decor at their centres, trees were decorated with lights and in the middle of the city there was the “île enchantée” – Abidjan’s version of London’s Winter Wonderland – which featured a huge lit-up santa. (N.B. the rides and games are all for small children, but entry is free, so it’s still worth checking out!)
How do Ivorians celebrate Christmas?
Firstly, only about 50% of the Ivory Coast population are concerned by Christmas day due to religion. What surprised me though, is that for those that are celebrating, it is not necessarily the norm to spend the day at home surrounded by family, but instead with friends (and a visit to church on the night of the 24th or morning of the 25th). The whole day appeared to me as quite informal: no fancy dinner, no perfect table settings, no Christmas outfits or posed pictures next to Christmas trees. No stress, no schedule or planned activities. Instead, Ivorians treat the day as perhaps it should be: a celebration!
I split my day between four different households, all of which featured high levels of singing and dancing, lots buffet-style food, and of course, alcohol. The main portion of my afternoon was actually with a group of friends who all sing in a choir together – so imagine enthusiastic singing, harmonies and percussion in the form of a spoon and empty wine bottle. Festivities aren’t conformed to households either; As I was walking between my various Christmas hosts I noticed how many bars were open and bustling, I could hear music coming from all different directions, and I even came across one group who were simply enjoying their day dancing in the street. Taxis and public transport all run as normal as those who are Muslim treat the 25th as they would any other day. Such an easy, relaxed, joyful day.
How do Ivorians celebrate the New Year?
The 31st of December is of course a big night out! Options include maquis (street restaurant/bars), clubs, fireworks… I managed to have a mixture of all three! I starting the evening with food and beers in a maquis in Dokoui, where we stood up to dance to any song worth dancing to from the maquis’ excellent playlist, and where we watched kids set off fireworks in the street (slightly dangerously… but nevertheless). I was then picked up by another group of friends, and we drove to the edge of Plateau to watch the official Abidjan New Year fireworks which, in true Ivorian timing, started at 00:30! After we’d seen midnight and no fireworks, we almost left, but fortunately they started just as we were leaving, so we were able to run back to a prime viewing spot (a bridge above the motorway). The night then continued in a nightclub, where we danced until 5am! (I was knackered but here it’s the norm to start a night out at 2am and finish at 6am.. safe to say I slept very well when I got home).
On the 1st of January however, those who spent their whole night partying will still wake up early, as it’s finally FAMILY DAY. To me the 1st felt more like Christmas, and I spent it with my roommate Sarah and her family. Again, the celebrations were very casual with the main objective of assembling extended family and sharing a meal together to start off the new year.
I actually didn’t miss home at all during Christmas. I was kept busy with so many generous invites, but I also quite enjoyed being away from the big commercial version of Xmas. It was truly a pleasure to be welcomed into so many different homes throughout December, and I hope to carry this warm-hearted, relaxed Ivorian spirit into my many future Christmases.