Every year, Watoto Church in Kampala puts on a spectacular Christmas show which is entirely free to the public. I have heard amazing things about the show, and this year we tried to go, only to get stuck in traffic because so many people were trying to get to the church. When we finally got to the church, we were among hundreds of people waiting in the rain to get a seat inside. We, along with literally hundreds of others, were turned away because there just wasn’t enough space.
I don’t intend for this post to come across as critical of Watoto Church or their Christmas show, because I greatly admire what they do to put on this free show each year and I hope to get a chance to see their show another year. Rather, the post is meant to be a reflection of the symbols of Christmas that we choose and the implicit messages that they sendIf you watch Watoto’s promotional video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z_-csDSTSo), they transformed their stage into a snowy winter wonderland – which I am sure made for quite an amazing show. However, it bothers me that they chose snow as a symbol of Christmas, in a country where there has never been, and never will be, a white Christmas.
In Uganda, many people celebrate Christmas by buying new clothes for their children, dressing up in these new clothes and going to church, visiting family in the village, roasting meat and feasting together with loved ones. Symbols of Christmas here include the fresh air of the village, the excitement of trying on new clothes, church services on Christmas morning, the smell of roasting meat, and enjoying time with extended family.
However, it is not hard to find Western symbols of Christmas in Uganda, especially in retail stores and Christmas cards. Symbols like snow, evergreens, and Santa Claus, which developed primarily from a European cultural context, are imported and promoted in Kampala. At Natalie’s international school, where there are children from a variety of cultures and religious backgrounds, their end of term show was not a holiday show, but a show with the theme “sharing the planet.” (Natalie’s class performed a Bollywood dance!) Yet even though the rest of the show was devoid of any Christmas elements, they still had a “Father Christmas” (Santa Claus) show up at the end dressed in a (very hot!) red outfit to give presents to the children.
One of the enduring legacies of colonialism is a sense of Western Cultural Superiority, which is reinforced today by advertising and marketing from Western corporations. For many of these businesses, the Global South has huge market potential. So they focus on not only selling products and services, but on selling Western culture. And they have been extremely successful. For many, a product associated with the West is cool, progressive and confers high status. It’s why people will pay twice as much for chicken and chips (French fries) at a Western fast food chain, even though the chicken and chips at a local joint are cheaper, fresher, and healthier (with few or no food additives or processing done). The Western fast foods chains are not only selling food, but the Western fast food cultural experience.
These dynamics of promoting Western cultural superiority is why seeing snow and Santa Claus as symbols of Christmas here in Kampala make me uncomfortable. These symbols arose out of a specific cultural context, and are not any more authentic symbols of Christmas than new clothes and roasted meat. The authentic symbols of Christmas transcend all cultures – the Biblical symbols of a baby in a manger, shepherds, wise men, and a star. I’m pretty sure it was not snowing in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born! Every culture that celebrates Christmas has additional symbols of Christmas that developed in their cultural context – and it’s good to celebrate these cultural symbols of Christmas as well. There is certainly nothing wrong with the American celebration of Christmas with Christmas trees, gift giving, cookie baking, and cards adorned with snowy winter scenes. And celebrating Christmas with new clothes, roasted meat, and time in the village with loved ones is also a meaningful cultural celebration of Christmas for many Ugandans. Each culture should have the freedom to define and celebrate their own symbols of the holiday in a way that is meaningful for their cultural context, and not be made to feel that imported cultural symbols are somehow more meaningful or authentic.