Monday, December 21, 2015

Festive Season

Christmas 2014 in Lesotho
In the early 1800s, French missionaries came to Lesotho. In addition to being the first to write the Sesotho language, they brought with them Catholicism and therefore Christmas.

Since then, much about this area has changed. The country transitioned from being a number of nomadic tribes to having permanent villages, underwent British colonization, and gained independence. With permanent settlements, the Basotho increased their agriculture. Then, needing more income than subsistence farming provides, many Basotho become migrant workers living in South Africa or other parts of Lesotho for large parts of the year.

As a result of being a former British colony, Lesotho observes Boxing Day (December 26th) as a national holiday in addition to Christmas and New Years. As a result of migrant working, Christmas is much more than just a day. The week of Christmas and the week of New Years are considered the Festive Season. The majority of migrant workers return home for at least those two weeks, if not the entire month.

For weeks leading up to the Festive Season, I am plagued by questions of when I am leaving to return to the United States for the holidays. In this culture, it is not unusual to live and work far from your family, however, to not return for Christmas is surprising.

On Christmas Eve, many Catholics attend church all night. They arrive before dark on Christmas Eve, the service continuing until first light. Since Christmas Eve is only a few days after the Summer Solstice (hello Southern Hemisphere!), dusk is before 8 and first light is just after 4, making the Christmas Eve service about eight hours.

Christmas is celebrated in dramatically different ways in Lesotho than America. Gifts are a rarity, as money is short. Children typically get a new outfit to wear for Christmas. They are also often given a few Maloti (Lesotho money) on Christmas so they may buy candy and sweets at the local shops. There is a dying tradition of children going door to door in the village to ask for sweets. Even fifteen years ago, it happened in my village, however, it has not been done for years.

Many families have an elaborate meal on Christmas with large quantities of meat and sweets like custard. Although the food itself is not profoundly different than other days-beets, carrots, rice, meat, etc-the quantity and the variety served in one meal is unusual.

Aside from family dinners, Christmas is a highly social activity. While many Americans spend the holiday with only their own family or their closest friends, in Lesotho, people are out en masse. They walk through the village, they socialize, they walk or ride to the nearest lodge to enjoy drinks together. Nearly every story I hear about a Christmas past includes a going somewhere with friends and getting beverages.

I think this is a great extension of the Basotho culture in general. I have often commented on how dependent this culture is on conversation and face to face interactions. It then makes sense to me that a holiday would be spent enjoying even more social contact with everyone.

The festivities do not end when Christmas concludes. After Christmas, the village is full of parties. Last year, I attended parties daily between Christmas and New Years. People are eager to share together and to celebrate while their extended families are home. The many parties wind down after New Years.


New Years Eve is an all-night for many Basotho, especially the youth. The night is spent out in the village again, wandering around and hanging out with friends while drinking beer and shooting off the firecrackers sold in the shops. As a culture more reliant on the sun than clocks, it is not surprising that countdowns at midnight are not part of their celebration. Instead, the sunrise marks the beginning of the new day and the new year. 

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn