The Yuletide season in Nigeria is a period synonymous with festivities. It begins with Christmas, which dovetails into the New Year. Christmas, in particular, is an occasion that is wildly celebrated by both Christians and non-Christians as people dine, wine and make merry.
But as the years roll by the form and complexion of the celebration has changed considerably. Certain activities are regarded as old fashioned or out of sync with the world view of the younger generation. That much was corroborated by elderly citizens from different parts of the country who recalled their memories of Christmas in different chats with our correspondents. Virtually everyone spoken to believes that the festival has lost its lustre.
Recalling what Christma was like in the 1960s and the 1970s, Alhaji Mukaila Ashiru, who is in his early 70s, said: “The Yuletide was a special period for us here in Lagos, especially in Isale Eko. We normally engaged in lots of fireworks, particularly the throwing of bangers. Now, bangers are more or less outlawed because people were no longer throwing them with decorum like we did in our time. Hence, a major source of fun is dying out, if it is not dead already.”
Alhaji Ashiru noted that although there were not many beaches in those days, many fun seekers thronged the Bar Beach at Christmas to have some good time. “Today, the Bar Beach has been reclaimed as part of the Eko Atlantic City. It was free entry and exit to the beach in those days. One would only pay when one wanted to ride a horse or engage in any kind of amusement.
“The different communities in Isale Eko engaged in their own forms of celebration. The Lafiagi, Campos, Fagi and Olowogbowo communities organised their festivities from Christmas until the new year.”
Madam Elizabeth Adepoju said Christmas was a special time the locals looked forward to in her Iropora community in Irepodun/Ifelodun Local Government Area, Ekiti State. The 83-year-old said people used to be in Christmas mood about two months to the festival.
She said: “Christmas was a special time in my own community. It was marked in the family, church and on the streets. In the church, drama depicting how Jesus Christ was born was staged and the festive period was usually in the air about two months to D-day.
“The climax used to be the Christmas Eve and the Christmas Day itself. On Christmas Eve, candles are lit around the village and people danced from their homes to the church. There was plenty to eat because almost every member of the community was a farmer and they would harvest crops that would be shared among families.”
Pa Babatunde Egunlusi, 78, said Christmas was celebrated by various age groups in his hometown, Ikole-Ekiti, headquarters of in Ikole Local Government Area.
Egunlusi said: “In those days in my own community, different age groups bought, sewed and wore commemorative clothes to mark Xmas. They danced round the town and went to the palace to pay homage to the Kabiyesi (traditional ruler).
“The youths made the period to be lively and gathered at the community square and other junctions to play music, drum and sing various Christmas songs.
“On Christmas Eve, a huge fire was lit at the town centre and every member of the community would go there for warmth because of the biting harmattan at the period. It was a period that was full of fun, joy and merriment in the village, and it was a time everybody looked forward to with great expectations.”
Chief Gabriel Olofinluyi, 74, a native of Ifaki-Ekiti, Ido/Osi Local Government Area, said Christmas and New Year period in those days offered eligible bachelors and spinsters the opportunity to get spouses.
He said: “Christmas/New Year time was special in my village because it was a period we used to select our future husbands and wives. This was because indigenes who were resident outside the town would come home to celebrate and old faces would see one another again.
“It was the usual practice in those days for indigenes to marry one another, and the period offered the chance for eligible bachelors and spinsters to meet and begin the friendship that often resulted in courtship and marriage.”
Mrs. Kemi Obisesan, 68, a native of Igbara-Odo in Ekiti Southwest Local Government Area, said: “On Christmas day, before going to church, prayers were held at the Oba’s palace, which was usually led by the monarch himself. Upon returning from the church, a big carnival would commence at the palace, featuring local music, dance competition, games including ayo olopon, and wrestling competition, among others.”
A retiree of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mrs Anike Akinyelu, who is in her 70s, remembers the Christmas of her childhood as a day of immense festivity and “great family get-together”.
She said: “When I was young, Christmas was really interesting and good. We enjoyed it. My siblings and I would gather together during Christmas and my father would kill a big goat to celebrate it.
“Before Christmas, he gave money to his wives, because I came from a polygamous home. He would give money to every mother to buy chicken and other items for their children. So, on Christmas day, a fat goat would be killed, we would cook rice and everybody would come together and eat.
“After that, if we wanted to go out, with our father’s permission, we would go to our elder siblings or to our cousin’s place. We went out in uniform clothes because they would buy the same cloth for us. It was fun.”
She noted, however, that a lot has changed about people’s attitude to Christmas.
She said: “Things have really changed, because in those days, there was not this hullabaloo about Christmas, people running around, shortage of fuel, and so on. These days, it seems to be all about money. People run here and there looking for money to buy things and so on.
“In my own days in my town, there weren’t things like that. People were satisfied with what they had. If you are a farmer, you use your farm produce for your family. That has been the major difference I have seen. People’s attitude have changed and they are desperate to get things with which to celebrate Christmas.”
Asked what could have been responsible for change in people’s attitude towards Christmas, Akinyelu noted that these days, people come under serious peer and societal pressure to live above their means.
She said: “One of the reasons for these changes is societal: the urge to be like Mr A or Mrs B. Some would do anything to buy a turkey for Christmas because their neighbours have bought turkey. They say ‘I want to buy for my children too.’ Or ‘I want to give gifts to my wife and parents.
“The second thing is the economy. In those days, if you bought a cloth worth 16 shillings, you would shine during Christmas. Or if you bought one pound of food at home, your family would enjoy.
“My father was a big farmer. Now, everyone wants to come to the city to look for money. And when the money is not forthcoming, people try all sorts of things. So, I think the two major problems are economic issues and societal pressure.”
However, Akinyelu is hopeful that Nigeria will become better and Christmas will always be an enjoyable experience for many.
She said: “Nigeria will be okay and the country will be great. If only people change their altitude by being content with what they have, instead of trying to buy all the things that their neighbours have, thereby running helter-skelter.”
For Major Ben Oluwole (rtd), what he finds thrilling about Christmas in the days of yore was the excitement that preceded the day.
He said: “Everyone does something different now. Back then, options were limited so we all pretty much did the same thing every year and it usually revolved around church, chicken and rice, being unable to sleep, waking up earlier than you ever thought possible, visiting cousins, etc.”
“Back in the days, you knew where you were during Christmas because there were only a few places to go. But nowadays, you can go to carnivals, cinemas, restaurants, beaches, etc. You can pretty much go anywhere. There are many fun places to visit. Children of nowadays are open to more entertainment than we had.
“There is no question that our society had a major shift in the 21st Century and everything from the way we celebrate Christmas, the way we communicate to the way we do business, our leisure time and so on changed.”
Pa Oluwole described technology as one of the factors responsible for the difference in the way Christmas was marked in the past and the way it is celebrated now. He added that people spend so much time with technological devices that they do not have time for family gatherings which used to be very common during the Christmas and New Year celebrations in times past.
He said: “Advanced technology is responsible for these changes. Remember, we only had one television and one television station (channel) back then, and not the countless ones that we have today. So, every single seasonal festival was an event big enough to bring every family member together.”
Talking about Christmas in the 60s and the 70s, Mr. Chuks Osu Awa-Ugbaga, a community leader in Amaekpu Ohafia in Abia State, said: “In those days, most people came from the cities back to the village for the Christmas celebration. Then, there were lots of traditional dances by young maidens. The young men would parade the whole community with their masquerades.
“There were maiden dances by young virgins from the ages of 5 years to 15 years. It was a kind of traditional dance, although it was called Christmas dance. The young girls were dressed in double wrappers which they tied on the waist and chest. They also wore beads, called jigida, on their waists. They dance from house to house to entertain villagers and got rewarded with gifts in form of money.
“Also, the churches organised special night services. At exactly midnight, the church group would go round the village singing ‘The King is Born Today’ in Igbo. People come out from their homes to exchange greetings with them.
“On Christmas day, it was compulsory to cook rice and stew garnished with pieces of meat. The children used to have special Christmas attires sewn strictly for the Christmas celebration. It was a day children wore their special attires and go to their relations’ homes to eat, sometimes over-eat. Those things are no longer there now. It has made Christmas less exciting.
“There is no more virgin dance. In fact, it is difficult to get such virgins these days. Those days are gone. Christmas is no longer as interesting as it used to be.”
In Rivers State, a 2015 retiree in the state’s Ministry of Youth Development, Edmond Georgewill, said: “There is no basis to compare Christmas celebration in my younger days with what obtains now.
“In my primary school days, Christmas celebration was very colourful despite my young age then. It was one celebration everybody, young or old, looked forward to. But the story has changed presently.
“Christmas celebration in Nigeria deteriorates every year. It gets lower in colour, standard and mood.
“Since FESTAC ’77, Nigeria has continued to go down every year, or should we say every month, like a sick child that is gradually dying off.”
Going down memory lane, Prof. Jim Nesin Omatseye, who is in his 70s, said: “When we were growing up in this town, in the primary school days, Christmas was the most exciting period in our lives, because as young people, you ate more food, had more delicacies, more extras. So, it was a time every young person looked forward to.
“Within the context of our African society, family is not just father, mother and child; it was family as a whole. So it was an opportunity to visit family members and friends.
“Back then, we used to dance juju from street to street. That wasn’t really masquerade. There was the masquerade fun on one side. In those days, communities organized masquerades. For instance, on Christmas and New Year days, the different areas of Warri used to organise masquerade dances, and it was fun to be around then.
“Besides, that on Christmas and New Year days, young boys and girls on various streets organised themselves into groups, beating drums and bottles, making music, going from place to place and getting people to drop money after you have danced and entertained. You were given food, snacks and all sorts of things. It was really different.
“Today, our young persons seem to be a bit more sophisticated. You don’t see that kind of dancing anymore on the streets. The churches have more or less taken over; Christmas carols, parties, going for shopping, to the cinema and so on.
“In terms of fun, children don’t have that kind of freedom again; they are more restrained. Parents these days are more afraid of letting their children out to go eat in places they don’t really know much about, so you can say fear has taken away that freedom.
“The level of sophistication too; education, civilization, all of those things have changed us and we have become more constrained. The churches where the children spend all their time now and the parties they go are substituting for those street-to-street entertainment.”
Speaking also on Christmas back in the days, 77 years old Pa Augustine Ighorue said: “Christmas was something you always wanted to welcome during my growing up years. There was that atmosphere of joy that something was about to happen.
“Even in the small house where it was just one small fried stew, people were still very happy to perceive even just the aroma of what was being prepared. That was not all, we also loved going out on Christmas day, visiting friends and family, trekking bare-feet and not minding.
“The story is however different nowadays. Today, children dread trekking from one pole to the next. They want you to provide transportation for them, which means that the joy of going out, visiting is already dead.”
‘Back then, when you went out, those you were visiting would welcome you. If there was nothing, no money, they will give you food, which you would eat with all smile and so much joy. That’s one aspect that I think we’ve lost; communal living, sharing our little things in common, is no longer alive. Children will even tell you nowadays ‘my mommy said I shouldn’t eat outside’. This is because there’s no trust any more, no love, these days people are only concerned about themselves and their immediate family.
“There’s a big difference, Christmas is no longer Christmas, we just go along because the period has come and we need the holiday, otherwise, it’s no more Christmas, no more festival.”
An octogenarian, Mr Samuel Onyeanwalam, who spoke with The Nation in an exclusive chat in Owerri, said that the practice has not always been so. According to him, “during our time, celebrating Christmas was not this expensive.
“I could remember then in Lagos State, what we used to do on Christmas day was to visit friends and relatives. Nobody was in any kind of competition. We did not give ourselves any unrealistic targets for Christmas like what obtains today where you see young men going into crime to impress their peers.”.
Madam Cecilia Amaigbo wondered if Christmas celebration is still a Christian rite, saying “this was not the way we celebrated Christmas during our time. For us then, it was a time to be sober and reflect on the gift of God and our Christian faith. But today, it has turned to a pagan ritual where all forms of immorality take place.
“During Christmas nowadays, crime is always at its peak. People kill to make money to celebrate. Businessmen hike the price of their goods to make profit thereby putting people through untold hardship.”