Merry Christmas: How has your Christmas celebration changed?

When I first came to Birmingham, UK, as a student in 1993, a key briefing topic on the University of Birmingham’s induction programme was how to prepare for the Christmas festival in the UK.

The Christmas festival at the time brought the UK to almost a standstill for one full week – from just before mid night on the 24th of December to midnight of the 30th of December.

We were strongly advised to stock enough food and all the related necessities to last at least a full week! All the major stores closed for a full week. Public transport operated truncated schedules, and private taxis operated at a premium.

The so called ‘corner shops’ (small family shops run mostly by ex-Ugandan Asian families) were the only source of emergency food, but were operated at a premium.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to stock for the full week during my first Christmas in the UK. I was invited by a close friend and his family, one of the only three UK-established Ugandans I knew on a personal basis – the other two being former lady members of staff, and close friends, at my place of work prior to pursuing further studies.

I however, had a full experience during my second Christmas, when I in fact had to stock food to last for more than a week. The severe winter of that year didn’t make life easy either.

There was hardly any traffic on the road on Christmas day. There was completely no public transport, and the few cars I saw were mostly being driven by ‘Santa Claus’ – delivering the gifts.

When I got to church, my conclusion was: ‘these people don’t go to church on Christmas day!’ That is when I remembered that we didn’t go to church the previous year either!

The Christmas festival, or to be more specific, Christmas day, in the UK is about family and friends exchanging gifts followed by eating and drinking crazily – church isn’t on the menu!

The gift exchange driven European Christmas therefore comes as an integrated festival of gifts, debt and stress. Many people get into debt and take months paying off the money they owe – some even pay debt instalments until the next Christmas!

The extended holiday debt and stress lead to un-reversable domestics misunderstandings. That is why the first week of every January (i.e. when businesses including divorce solicitors open for business) records the highest filling of divorces each year.

Most people came out of their ‘hibernation’ on the 30th of December to celebrate the end of the year. The Christmas sales then started on 1st January.

Seventeen years on, and significant changes have happened – mainly driven by capitalism.

  • Many food stores now close only on Christmas day, but reopen on boxing-day, i.e. 26th December.
  • Some food stores in fact operate limited services on Christmas day itself.
  • The Christmas sales now start on the 26th of December instead of starting on the new-year’s day.
  • You can see some real activity (i.e. people driving/moving around) on Christmas day!

Back home, changes had also happened long before I came to the UK. I remember those good old primary and secondary school days, when I was still a ‘parasite’. Of course, contrary to what some ‘urbanists’ wanted to believe, to me, the best Christmas was always in the villages – the so called upcountry.

For the subsistence farmers, including my parents and many of my relations, the Christmas festival coincided with a farming-free dry season – a season when families rewarded themselves for the year’s hard work.

The Christmas festival was therefore an extended celebration, often starting a week before Christmas day and extending well into the new year.

Rather than celebrate individually, families formed Christmas party groups. Each family was allocated a day (days) when they would take on responsibility to entertain the rest of the families with local brew, roast meats, music – mention it.

Courtsey of

The festival was therefore financed by credit – food reserves for food and local brew, and proceeds from the sell of the then traditional cash crops for the cash demanding items.

At its basic level, it was also a time for getting a new ‘something’ – cloths for everybody, that all important bicycle for the head of the household, or even those corrugated iron sheets to elevate your status!

That is partly why everybody paraded themselves into church on the big day – to show off their new packaging! Unlike Europe, it is only on Christmas day that you could see certain individuals attend church service!

Children participated fully. In our home, our neighbours’ homes, and our relations’ homes, local brew was for instance treated as food, not alcohol. That is why children of all ages fully participated in consuming the local brew ‘food’, which could have amounted to a crime/offence in the West.

Most of that is now history. The backlash from the commercialisation of the social enterprise has derailed what we once took for granted when I was growing-up. Some youngsters might only learn about what used to happen in the good old days through documented literature.

Whatever has changed at your end – whether you are celebrating for only a few minutes, or a few hours, or a day, or a few days or you are one of the lucky ones capable of celebrating for several days – make the most of that time. Several years from today, that will have changed as well – probably significantly changed!

Have a merry Christmas and a prosperous and happy new year.


2 responses to “Merry Christmas: How has your Christmas celebration changed?

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