Christmas in the Madagascar Bush

For most of us, Christmas is a word that is loaded with Untitled-1Santa Claus, called "Dadabe Noely", speaks with the younger Malagasy childrentremendous meaning. No doubt our minds are flooded with all sorts of wonderful images and memories. All our senses are jammed with a myriad of sights, sounds, smells and messages. Many of these are shaped and formed as much by our culture as by scripture.

For example, the first time I spent Christmas alone in the bush country of Madagascar, I suffered from a massive dose of cultural shock. Since Christmas is in the rainy season I had to go on foot and canoe rather than take the Jeep. It was hot, humid and very muddy – no snow! Mosquitoes and other “little nasties” did not readily put me into a Christmas mood.

I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas day in a small, isolated village. I slept on the mud floor in the sacristy of our tiny dilapidated doorless church. This was a predominately pagan village with only a handful of Catholics.

The people insisted that we have a Midnight Mass. But, as it their custom, they began singing Christmas carols around 9:00 PM. The children had made a crib made out of local clay. There was Mary and Joseph and naturally Jesus. These figures were surrounded not only by an ox, donkey and a few cows but also by a myriad of ombies (malgasy cattle) – a sign of wealth, riches and royalty.

After Mass I went to bed but the people continued singing and recounting the Nativity and other bible stories.

At 6:00AM I got up to celebrate Mass once more with the people before they had to go to work in their rice fields. Christmas occurs in the middle of their planting season and, as all farmers know, you must plant when Mother Nature says so.

Looking back I have to admit that that Christmas was one of my best Christmases ever.
Ingredients for a Madagascar Christmas (l to r): fresh lychees, families with their children gathered around the Christmas tree, a home-made Christmas creche (this one of hand-carved native wood).
Untitled-2Ingredients for Madagascar Christmas (l&r): fresh lychees, families with their children gathered around the Christmas tree, a home-made Christmas creche (this one of hand carved native wood)

“Christmas in Madagascar means a time of festivities for the people of the island. The day of Christmas is celebrated by the Christian population of Madagascar. Christmas in Madagascar is during the summer months, so picnics and parties are arranged on this day. A common tradition of Christmas in Madagascar is that people visit their elders and other respectable people of the area.

“The figure of Santa Claus is a big part of Christmas. There Santa Claus is called 'Dadabe Noely'. The name means Grandfather Christmas and signifies the spirit of the festival. On Christmas day everyone (as well as strangers) greets each other by saying 'Arahaba tratry ny Noely' which means 'Merry Christmas'.

“One of special Christmas foods in Madagascar are fresh lychees, which are bought from shops and street sellers, fresh from the trees. The streets get covered in lychee skin” (last two paragraphs from a recent blog).