Just like any other Christian festivity and celebration, Christmas was introduced to Madagascar by the Europeans who came to the island at the beginning of the 19th century. There is no clear indication of when exactly Malagasy people started to celebrate Christmas, but for sure, Madagascar is amongst the 160 countries that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. These countries all have their Christmas traditions, some of them may be similar and some of them differ from one country to another, based on the local customs and environment. For example, making a snowman is a tradition in some countries in the Northern hemisphere but it will not happen in countries where it never snows.
As Christmas was brought by foreigners to Madagascar, the traditions that come with its celebration are not originally Malagasy. Here are a few of them.
Around two weeks before Christmas, Malagasy families start dressing Christmas trees in their house. It is an opportunity for all family members to participate in common projects in the household. Unlike the snowy countries where the pine tree is among the very few plants that remain green during the Christmas season, in Madagascar, families have a multitude of choices of green trees, but pine trees are also the natural one used for Christmas. The ornaments are garlands, glitter baubles, lights…. More and more households use artificial trees for practical reasons. The Christmas tree will remain in the house until after New Year’s Day.
On Christmas Eve, people will go to church to pray and in many cases watch a play narrating the birth of Jesus Christ. While in some countries, people have a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve, it is rarely the case in Madagascar, it is rather the time to prepare the food for the big day. Coincidentally and inexplicably. Christmas Eve, most of the time, to not say always, is a rainy time in the capital city.
Christmas day is basically the day of the year, besides Easter, where churches are fully packed, and for some Christians, it's the one day a year where they go to church. Churches usually have at least two services: early morning (6 or 6:30AM) and mid-morning (9:30AM or 10AM), some churches have an evening service. But if you are going to the mid-morning mass and you do not want to stand outside, you need to arrive at the church at least 30 minutes before the mass starts. People would dress very formally and it the opportunity for many people to wear new clothes and/or new shoes.
A special day for family gathering, Christmas day is the one where people have at least three courses in a meal, that would typically be a cold appetizer, a warm appetizer, the main course, a salad, dessert, and the Yule Log cake. The cold appetizer would be hors d’oeuvre, “poisson Bellevue”, or something similar. The warm appetizer would be a gratin (pasta or fish), the main course is the inevitable rice and pork with turkey, or pork with goose. Another dish (fish or meat) may be added to the main course. The salad is just any type of salad with various dressings. The dessert is mostly fresh fruits because it is the season where a number of tropical fruits are in abundance (mangoes, lychees, …), and the Yule Log cake. Note that the “vodiakoho” (the butt of the poultry) is always given to the eldest around the table. It is believed to be a sign of respect, but another possible explanation is that it is the softest and the fleshiest part of the poultry and is very suitable to old people’s teeth. Drinks will be wine, sodas, and fruit juices, Unfortunately, this type of meal is no longer affordable to many Malagasy people.
Christmas is reputedly a kids’ day. Therefore, they receive their toys, supposedly from Santa Claus, which they will find at the bottom of the Christmas tree in the morning of December 25. Adults may also receive gifts but not as much as the children. Adults may however enjoy their chocolate.
Christmas is the biggest opportunity of the year to meet the family, in the large sense. Gatherings usually, not necessarily, happen at the parents’ house. It is also a moment to reconnect with friends even if it is just by sending a short SMSto wish everyone a Merry Christmas.