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  • Writer's pictureStephen Osieyo



I was born in the 1950s and my early childhood covered much of 1960 and 1970. The Christmas I grew up with stopped somewhere around 1990 even if now sporadically practised. I blame the death of that appropriate Christmas festivities partly on the smaller family unit as compared to the clan family unit I grew up in. By then the family unit was more than your wife and children. There could be other reasons like the economy driven urban migration that has drained Nyanza of a community. But if so the urbanite Luos should be still be in praise for the revolutionised Luo Christmas.

What do I mean by revolutionised Luo Christmas and how is it different from the European Christmas or any other Christmas in Kenya? But mostly how did it evolve. First let us describe the current Luo Christmas routine. It commences from the scram to travel home at the height of holiday season. Even if well planned, the exigencies of services make it difficult for Luos to travel home in good time at friendly fares.

Then there is the traffic rush to get home and see the faces of the rest of your family. I say the rest because most people now have their wives and children in the urban setting. So in the frenzy of getting home the main purpose is to see the face of the elderly parents.

For the younger generation, this is the times to go and let loose in the nearest urban areas; meet up with the very friends you know from Nairobi with and generally a time to kick back and forget the turbulent traffic jams, 5-7 clockwork routine after routine like a jail precinct. To men especially it’s the time for male mischief to be boys again for two weeks. To escape from the yoke of being a man. Then when this is all over head back to Nairobi to begin another 365 days of working urban and rural development projects for retirement.

The Christian faith takes a back seat as you can see. And the Christian faith has always taken a back seat.

White Christmas

White Christmas in Kenya is not a new thing in that it has a calendar on the 12th month of the year exactly 25 days in the month. Some says Christians moved the day to coincide with pagan celebrations like say if Luos moved the day to coincide with celebrations in Luo land which used to be the ceres months after or during harvest (opon or ndalo keyo). So if Christians moved their calendar then it would be in August in Luo land. But that is a small matter because the white Christmas a part from observing and celebrating the day Christ was born is a time of small unit of family getting together and exchanging gifts. There is no ethical obligation or standards of holidaying apart from church attendances except Christmas. I am not even sure there is a commandment that binds us to celebrate Christmas mass.

So spiritually it is a time to attend church and have a good meal of kuon gi gweno mathuon. If you can afford it buy law-mar -Christmas. How about the Luo Christmas of the yesteryears?

Luo Christmas. Luo Christmas of yester years had spirituality, ethics, planning, family units and also a mirage of the Christina sacraments as observed by the catholic church. It is for this reason that I say the Luo Christmas was more spiritual than the white Christmas. It could be because by then Luos were mainly migrant workers or diaspora who used the time well. For whatever reasons below are the various characters in the contents and cortex of a Luo Christmas celebration from 1950-1980.

1. Project

First of all, because of the distance this holiday was meticulously planned. You see in the early years kapango was a place you go to raise seed capital to do your things in Nam lolwe area. So the return journey was in December to coincide with other projects, say marriage, buying plough, etc. Even for those on occupational settlement, most of the projects were delayed to coincide by the return during this month. A funeral attendance or a customary function attendance will be put back to December month. And clansmen would know in time whose assignment was next on what date. Sometimes one assignment would be deferred by the clan because mar nay ng’ane koro nyaka los. Basically it was a period of planned projects.

2. Ceres to December

Traditionally a lot of these ceremony took place in the period of ceres. That is the period of harvest. Usually after the crops have been harvested there was a lull in activities before the next cycle of farming for opon (short rains). Also at harvest there was an abundance of resources for activities and celebrations. So like in the white Christmas where Christians gave way to the pagans, here the Luo customary order gave way to Christians. In other words, there is an opposite transposition even if not deliberately meant to be such. So by accident the Luo customs retained Christian spirituality by happening at the same time as Christians celebrating mass for the birth of Christ.

3. Worship

Yes, the worship was Christmas on the 25th December and that there was no denying. But there was another worship that can be keenly observed. First the family reunion gave a new introduction to members of the family. And something I noticed is that during this period the grownups never referred to anybody with Christians names or occasional name of birth like time of birth. Everybody especially the children were referred to by their ancestral name and more so praise ancestral names. So if you came to my village and expect to hear the name Odhiambo or Steve then you will wait until we are in the church compound or a pastor came to visiting. In the absence of either my names would spectacularly turn to chot-were, chot-Ajwang’ nyar Oduma, chot-Rambo. And everybody had their own way of reuniting you to your ancestral person you are named after. It was as if it was “shhhhhs, we are close to headquarters, let us behave”. Even children named after in-laws would never be called by their names as the name of the in-law is revered. It was maro, jaduong, min-nyiri. And this is so because Luos never named after the living. The spirit of the dead ancestor was presumed to walk by the new name holder. So everybody had to be of best behaviour. But wait till you get to Nairobi and you have not done your homework. That is a different ball game. What I am saying is that at this time it was almost a continuous baptism or renewed naming to connect you with your ancestor for more good tidings. That your ancestral name name is re-affirmed of is it confirmation every time you are called by the name is some form of spiritual invocation of blessings. You get the idea that the Luo Christmas season was solemn in that aspect.

4. Diero ni maro (Mother in law gifting)

In the Luo wedding the mother in-law is gifted more than anybody and it is endless. There is the uncountable diero, dher oyuma, dher kayiem, ngeso etc. A mother in law is revered in Luo customs. As a son in law one is not supposed to visit the precinct of the maro or market that a mother in law is likely to visit without a very valid reason approved by one’s own clan. Shaking a mother in laws hand is even removed. However still it was unheard of for a son in law to visit upcountry in December without gifting the mother in law like it was done during the harvest period.

Further to this in Luo customs there were some gifting that were customary to a mother in law only. Sometimes it was just because one was pleased with the wife. Or the wife had performed an exemplary favour by taking care of an orphan. And even sometimes where the wife is keeping an embarrassing misdemeanour away from the public such as flatulence, wetting in bed, male malfunction. In the absence of a thank you as a word in Luo custom, the deed replaced the word. So one would gift the mother in-law and spoil them with gifts and entourage that gives he mother in law a clout and raises the bar for the other sons in law. Regrettably such gifting did not include father in law. So don’t let anybody sell that cotton field mantra that Luo women were left behind.

For the purposes of this post the activities that used to be planned during harvest was moved to Christmas activity around Christmas and planned by the whole clan where some gave way for the other.

5. Matrimony

The harvest month was traditionally a period for weddings or conclusion for the wedding stages. Also tied to this was the period of gifting like above or just initiation matrimony by mako keny or match making. Naturally some subsisting unions required tribunals. All these matters were put back until after harvest which with Christianity and occupational absence has moved to Christmas season month of December.

Just to underscore as outlined in Tom Mboya’s speech on African socialism the maintenance of a marital union was communal. So all these projects were planned in collectively to take place in this period. In other words, December was not the time to go into seclusion or abuse the body with binge drinking. This was the period to engage in activities that unite the family, draw people closer and where there are disputes to build bridges instead of walls. And we can all agree that any collective activity that sustains a community is spiritual.

6.Family issues

Then there is the distance relationship that impacted negatively on migrant workers. Some of these could only be overcome by contact. Take the basic union matters like kalo nyathi, lielo nyathi, loko ot.etc. This was the time to engage in such customs and rituals that enhanced communication and good understanding.

Not to be left out was matters of penitence and repentance where one has wronged a wife or an in-law. Sorry the word did not count because it is non-existence in dholuo and most African dialects like say Agikuyu. Apology is by deed. But certain acts like say organising a feast to bring forth reunion after kong oseke, praises where clans people shower praises just to touch base as to who they really are. Praise songs to mollify and soften hard feelings, gifts to mark an event like moso dhiang’ etc.

Then there are the matrimonial issues like engaging a wedding. Where in-laws who had impressed the clan would be asked to act as a go between to initiate a union for a prospective member of the clan. This sort of responsibility provided a ready reference to a new member of the clan with a sure guarantor to over-see matters when things go wrong.

6. Burial

In the not so distant memory, a son in law was not supposed to see the mound of the mother in law when it was freshly dug let alone the body or coffin. In addition to this there is a saying that paying last respect is not a onetime event. It is the period after harvest that most of the ceremonies took place. This therefore means that the transfer to Christmas period meant that the activities were also transferred to December.

When well-coordinated as a clan activity such as visiting mother in-laws place is undertaken it takes time and resources. Given that this is in short supply; it is understandable why some of these are being put forward indefinitely. The biggest challenge is that the family units is not only smaller but has no time for such burial. A burial in Nyanza is now no different from a burial in Sussex, England where after the burial the wake (meals after burial) is consumed in the nearest pub with a juke box blazing and in two hours is gone and the bereaved family is sent back to their deserted home.

Is Luo Christmas still relevant today?

Most of the elements described above have been greatly impacted not because they are irrelevant but because the community has taken different structure that runs counter the family unit.

Take cooperative economics. Very few merry go rounds, nyo luoro, table banking have obeyed the known family lines. They have not even obeyed any known order. This therefore means that to run any activity in another structure will bring a new layer that the fragile community cannot bear.

Are there any community that tie such structures to ancestral cells? Most Asian communities either rely on well-founded family unions or religion to guide such structures. What this means is that for an Indian family to set up a cartel to compete in a business venture is very easy and can be done with speed. Faced with such a cartel, a Luo business venture will be hard to fight off an Asian syndicate

The Bengali community in the diaspora have this syndicate to marry within the known family unity as long as a member of the diaspora only marries abroad from the home country. A young man in the diaspora must only marry a young woman in Bangladesh in an arranged marriage. A young woman in the diaspora must only marry a man from Bangladesh. I am not saying Luos must do the same. All I am saying that no matter how unpalatable some customs have become; we can see the benefits of the spirituality of the yester year Luo Christmas. In the current setting such collective communication with still serve us a vessel for collective bargaining and competition.

Most of what Luos did during Christmas can still be done in urban areas and in small family units and there is absolutely no excuse. Take for example wero ni dhako (gifting your wife as a way to say thank you). More than anything this is still very relevant and is more important than a Christmas present on boxing day that says nothing about her or about Jesus Christ. Also the gifting of a mother in law as an essential whenever you go visiting during vacation by something as modern a doctors’ health check to capture any weakness in the body in good time. It is not really buying them with expensive gifts but reuniting and re energising the relationship beyond any issues you may have. And this goes on for the other elements of Luo Christmas celebration.

There is nothing wrong with the content. As for form it can take any form just like the community moved from harvest period to December.

Spirituality of Luo Christmas season

It is false to assume that Luo Christmas season is dead and only vestiges of it is remaining. And that Namlolwe people are just going through the emotions of the past Christmas. Just look at the commotion and mud rush commuter towards Nam Lolwe in the days pre-Christmas day like impulsive wildebeests of Serengeti or the migrating Salmon of Alaska, North America. What needs to happen is a reawakening that what we Luos are doing is not only habitual but also spiritual when the living touch base with the departed. The mecca like pilgrim is expensive to the untrained eye but not more expensive the European and North American commercialisation of the Christmas holidays. So give us a break.

The spirituality of touching base with ancestral place is real and you can feel it even if you don’t take part. Neither the traffic chaos, the exorbitant fares, the traffic commotion nor the dilapidated hut of a relative will keep a Luo from visiting the Lakeside during Christmas once the calling from the ancestors is connected. Why Luos and not other tribes in Kenya? It is because the to the people of Namlolwe it spiritual first then personal. Luos may be 80% Christians in their practical lives but for sure they are 120% Luos in body and soul.


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