With First Free Rockford’s strong connection to the Congolese church and to Tabitha centers in the capital city of Kinshasa, Christmastime unites us even more.
ReachGlobal missionaries Jim and Ruth Snyder and their family lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1985 to 1996, back when the country was called Zaire. (ReachGlobal is the world mission agency of the Evangelical Free Church of America.) We spoke with Jim via email about his family’s memories of Christmas in the Congo.
Is Christmas a big deal in DRC? It’s a public holiday, right?
Christmas is a VERY big deal. Employers generally give food stuffs (chickens, rice, fish, salt, sugar) to their employees and often have parties in early December which include a meal and the distribution of these. The closer one lives to Kinshasa, the more commercialized it has become. China’s influence (believe it or not) has introduced plastic Christmas trees, lights of all sorts and decorations that are now in many homes and churches. In general, people look forward to the holiday as it affords time off from work and with extended family.
What are some of the customs and traditions?
Nativity plays are common throughout Congo. They often take place the night before Christmas. When these are in places where there is no electricity (which is a majority of the country), they will use flashlights or lanterns to light the stage. The same pageant is normally performed early on Christmas morning as well. Parts that include the angels or Roman soldiers (which seem to always creep into the narrative) are often subject to the creative privilege of the actors, who are normally children.
The churches are decorated with palm branches and flowers, strung throughout the rafters. The melodies of Christmas carols we sing have been adjusted to local dialects, often taking on slightly different meanings. Hymn books that once flourished have now been memorized by most congregants. When the song leader says “Hymn 354” the congregation all joins in on the exact song, singing all four stanzas.
Are there any special foods for Christmas?
In areas away from rivers, chicken is still No.1 on the menu. Food is generally a bit more elaborate on New Year’s.
What about for your family when you were there?
Our missionary family, at each mission station, would often gather on Christmas morning for a potluck breakfast. People would “pull out the stops,” baking using supplies that had been stashed away for the occasion. Egg casseroles, sweet rolls and things with cinnamon were highly anticipated and always a big hit.
What else do you remember about Christmases there with your family?
It was always different doing things without electricity. When we were in Congo, we gathered our five boys, dressed them in their finest and did our best to last through any church service. The Christmas service could go two to three hours, with people packed onto benches in stifling heat. As in the U.S., it was common to see people at the Christmas service who would never otherwise come to church, so churches would be filled.
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We also spoke with Mike and Julia Anne McCord, who served in DRC with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Julia Anne especially remembers the Christmas church services.
“People from different churches would begin to gather on the 24th in preparation for the gathering, held under a palm structure constructed just for the services that would take place the next two days,” she says. “On Christmas day there was a four-hour service with lots of choirs, offerings, sermons and interpretation of sermons. A feast meal would follow for church dignitaries. The day after Christmas would be another service with much the same, plus Communion for the eligible, and baby dedications.”
Gift-giving is part of Christmas in DRC, too, she adds. A husband would often give his wife cloth so she could sew a new outfit, and clothes for the children, too.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.