Dreaming of that old Christmas

This Sunday is the big Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

To many a millennial and teenager, it is nothing more than being home with Netflix and a decent meal, but for a certain generation, this will be a nostalgic affair about Christmases past that they can never relive. YUDAYA NANGONZI stoked Christmas nostalgia of the 1970s, 80s and 90s that our children will never experience.


Christmas was all about feasting. I am a staunch Catholic but I hated the long hours we would spend in church on Christmas Day. We normally went with our grandmother; she would sit outside church to greet all her friends and church leaders.

It was annoying for the children but we learned to be patient and disciplined. We used to put on new clothes for the day but the food was more of a big deal.

Lunch would be served around 4pm and chicken was a big deal on that day. Meanwhile, it is only on Christmas Day that we would be given money for offertory, but most of us kept that money for pancakes or to visit video halls after lunch – God forgive me. Today, Christmas is so boring that I can spend the entire day watching movies in my house.


My fondest Christmas memories go back to the 1970s when I was a small boy in Kasanje-Kabonera village in Masaka.

My elder siblings who were already working mainly in Kampala would come home to celebrate Christmas with our parents. They would arrive after dusk bearing presents including clothes and shoes.

The sight of car lights approaching our home caused so much excitement, as we knew that inside the cars were goodies that made Christmas such a joyous day.

When I received new clothes, I would wake up hours before the usual rising time and wonder why the time for church was “dragging”. I would be exceedingly eager to wear my clothes which I believed made me the smartest boy in our church.

What followed after was a sumptuous lunch, whose menu included rice, which was always steamed in a round covered pan called ‘bokisi’ (box), for reasons I am not privy to. My father always bought a crate of soda for Christmas and each of us was entitled to a bottle after the meal.

If I were to rewind the clock, I would opt for the Christmas we used to enjoy back in the 1970s.


From the late 80s to early 90s, the build-up to Christmas would start on the eve when one of the community’s family choirs would roam the village singing carols. I am a son of a priest.

On D-day, it was family time to showcase brand-new clothes in the community and at church. Failure by a man to buy new clothes for his wife on that day was a potential marriage breaker.

We would have lots of food with rare and expensive delicacies such as beef and chicken, which were a preserve of Christmas. Meanwhile, the Christmas trees were decorated with cottonwool, toilet paper and old Christmas cards. In the afternoon, it was a soccer – netball affair with a goat usually rewarded as a trophy. Christmas was a day to look forward to, unlike today.


Christmas was always a special season. It meant new clothes, shoes, general cleaning, slaughtering animals and merrymaking.

It all started with brewing tonto and decorating the house while the church choir sang carols. On D-day, we would all be at church by 9am. The mass was always the longest – going up to 2pm. We would go home to find neighbours that normally gathered at our place for lunch and drinks; [they would make merry] until the following day. We would celebrate further by dancing and drumming.

However, there are times Christmas found us with no herdsboy and I wouldbe assigned to graze animals while others went to church. Those would be the most boring Christmas days.


I was raised in Masaka, Villa Maria. My father had many wives and more than 35 children. Our Christmas started on December 18 and moods were high as people cleaned compounds, while elders called for reconciliation meetings. Our parents used to tell us to go to church and confess our sins before Christmas and whoever did that was rewarded.

We enjoyed the Christmas plays and carols. For youths with loved ones, one made it a point to learn a song or two so they could sing to their lovers on that day or write them love letters, although once caught, the punishments would be heavy.

After enjoying all the food, we used to enjoy village concerts, while others visited theatres.


Being raised by peasant parents, Christmas was about acquiring new clothes and shoes. Nnalongo, my lovely mother, would go to the market and return with a pile of second-hand clothes and shoes and give everyone at home including our shamba boy and herdsmen.

The festive season often began with the slaughtering of a goat or bull (depending on the visitors expected). All those Christmas holidays we did nothing except [to] feast on the meat, roast maize, show off ‘new’ clothes and loiter around, watching choirs…

It was fun to spend Christmas in the village. Our Christmas holidays ended on January 2 with an impending herculean task of harvesting millet, pulling weeds, uprooting underground stems from the banana plantation, and ferrying maize and millet stalks for mulching.

When I moved to Kampala, urban Christmas was boring because I needed money to go to beaches and music concerts, which I didn’t have. As a person who lost my faith at 10 years, I didn’t look at Christmas in a holy way – it was about feasting – because I had a lot of unanswered questions, which were later solved when I began to read philosophy.


We celebrated Christmas [1989-1993] as a large extended family but the most important day was Christmas Eve. This is when we would decorate our Christmas tree [usually cut out of a neighbour’s fence].

The most beautiful tree had to be big enough with sweets [I would steal the sweets], cotton balls, old cards, and toilet paper in green, pink, and white colours.

St Paul’s cathedral, Namirembe prided in the biggest local Christmas tree. The excitement would be too much on the eve. On Christmas day, everyone wore their best to go to church – just a formality but the interest was going back home to enjoy lunch and sodas.

At around 4pm, elders would go for plays in the theatres or Ggaba beach to enjoy Afrigo band. Children would be given money to watch movies in video shacks, but we mostly walked from home in Mengo through the city to Sheraton hotel.

It’s funny that we would go to State House, Nakasero, and Kololo areas to tour without any security hindrances, unlike today. We would take a break at Bimbo to enjoy ice cream, juice and grilled chicken, then return at around 6pm for football at Old Kampala SS pitch before going home at 8pm.


Christmas was the best day for any child back in the day. I grew up in Kanyanya. A few days before Christmas, my elder brother Sam would storm villages looking for Christmas trees [kakomera] for us to decorate the home.

We would get a bucket filled with stones to hold our tree and position it in a strategic corner of the house. We used to blow balloons for the decorations, but by the end of the exercise, the cheeks would hurt so bad, but it was an interesting moment.

The funniest bit was that all the toilet paper on the tree would be missing by the end of Christmas Day [go figure…] For the sweets, whenever I mopped the house, a sweet would disappear, but I would leave the wrapper on to confuse my siblings. One Christmas Day, my mother sat down to distribute the sweets, but they were all gone! I was forced to hold the Bible and swear but I tearfully asked for forgiveness.

Our mum used to wrap our brand- new Christmas clothes or toys in boxes placed near the tree. The excitement was immeasurable. We ate Christmas breakfast on a mat, wearing only our underwear to avoid soiling our new outfits.

After church we would go to the present-day Serena hotel to meet Father Christmas, who would read out our names with presents as organized earlier by our mother. It was fun. Lunch at home for once was self-service and everyone, including children, used forks. We would end the day with sodas, the rarely-drunk colas causing our eyes to tear. I wonder what happened to sodas lately!


Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Christmas was all about heading to Ibanda. It was so much fun in the village. Everyone prepared, but the special thing about Ibanda was the market day on December 23.

On this day, almost every family would be at Nyabuyikye market to shop for Christmas Day. It was such an exciting time … there was so much to choose from.

Then December 24 was meat day. So many cows, goats, and chickens would be slaughtered, and we would rise early to go and get the best parts. Because Christmas is all about festivity, the D-day would be about that; showing off our new clothes and shoes then returning home from church to feast on lots of food and soda.


It was a beautiful period, because we expected to eat and drink in a special way. This was also time for us to meet new people and often made exchange visits with relatives and friends.

Christmas activities were preceded by Sunday mass. We would go to church but it was about merrymaking. The most exciting Christmas is when my father bought me new shoes but this mentality has since changed, given the nature of my ministry.

I now understand that Christmas is all about sharing and growing after the life of Christ. Christmas is a very beautiful and unique period … we have to celebrate it with material things, but as Christians, we need to elevate ourselves above these and go spiritual.


My fondest memory of Christmas is the first time I tasted alcohol. Then, Bell Lager was running a campaign dubbed “Bell Beer, Omunywi wa Bell Tabula”.

I went to some rich uncle’s home and there was a lot of beer. I was around 13 years, in my senior one. After all the Christmas food, at about 7pm, I helped serve beer to the guests and relatives. I also decided to serve myself, but halfway through the bottle, I was speaking French. I will never forget that Christmas.


I grew up in Mengo Kisenyi. Christmas was always a special day to look forward to; it was a time to celebrate family, friends, and community; it was that special time of the year when love, joy, care, and faith were freely expressed and liberally shared.

Christmas always had colour – balloons, cotton wool, and old season cards formed the basic decoration for the natural Christmas tree mounted in a bucket filled with stones. We would cut the tree from the neighbour’s fence. Christmas was special because it came with special music and special songs that would be played only once a year on Radio Uganda.

My love for Christmas music often led me to play near a grocery store on Lubaga road, where a shopkeeper loudly played the classic Bonney M Christmas album over and over.

I never imagined that something bad could happen on a beautiful day like Christmas, until Christmas 1983, when a neighbour lost a child and the joy turned into mourning.

But perhaps my favourite memory is preserved in a family photo taken on December 25, 1988. On that day, I wore my first blazer to church. I looked smart in a suit!


Christmas was special at our home in Kawuku-Ggaba. I am Catholic, but my father is an Anglican; so, our mum used to take us for the midnight mass at St Charles Lwanga in Ggaba, which is sadly no longer in place.

I would wear my brand-new clothes and walk to church barefoot, since shoes were not a big deal in the 50s. On D-day, we enjoyed a wonderful meal with a lot of beef, chicken, rice, and soda. Children used to take tea, banana juice, or water on other days, but we were assured of a bottle of soda on Christmas.

In the evening, parents would enjoy a beer or local brew while enjoying music off the gramophone, 78 graphite disks, or radios playing Congolese music in the compound. It was superb!

Currently, people visit Ggaba beach on Christmas to have fun, but during our time Ggaba was a mere landing site and a springboard for people traveling to Mukono.


Christmas would be organized by one family in the village, where we would gather and feast. We would be more than 20 family members in one home. As children, we would wake up early around 5am to do morning chores, while others slaughtered chickens, cows, among others.

Our Christmas celebrations then easily relate with lavish weddings being held today, as it was all about feasting. All types of alcohol and local brew would be in plenty for people to enjoy and dance till morning.

We would crave the next Christmas, longing for the year to end. After I joined university, those sweet memories started fading. It worsened when I started working as a journalist and now a police officer; Christmas is a normal working day for me.


As a child, what stood out was the hype in the preparations. Christmas was mainly about feasting because the food was in plenty in the village.

I remember all the clothes that we used for Christmas were brand new and each one of us got two outfits; one for Christmas and the other for New Year’s Day. And then the hot combing of our hair mainly on December 24!

We would heat a metallic comb on a charcoal stove and hot comb one another’s hair because salons were not a common thing.  There’s a Christmas when I had to hot comb my hair twice because while running some errands I got drizzles into my freshly hot-combed hair and it frizzed. I was forced to hurriedly hot comb it again.

Growing up, soda was not a common thing in Uganda. My father would buy us a drink called Tree Top from Kenya to enjoy ourselves on Christmas. After lunch, we would walk aimlessly around the village and this helped us to bond as relatives.

My father was a police officer; for some reason, they liked buying and rearing turkeys. So, we slaughtered a turkey every Christmas and it was a big deal. At home, we drummed and danced for the adults to tip us…

I don’t see Christmas that way. Families are just so apart; I have been married for more than 20 years but I have not shared a Christmas with my in-laws. These are fundamental memories that our children have missed.


I had mind-blowing Christmases while growing up. As an Orthodox, we celebrate our Christmas every January 7, but having lived in a mix of religions, I can tell it all.

In Yugoslavia, I remember all the special feeding that came with Christmas on December 25, while expressing the beauty of our cultures and traditions. The simplicity of Christmas comes in unbelievable nature in the villages.

For the last 21 years, I have been in Africa and celebrated Christmas in nine different countries. I am not the type that goes back to my homeland every Christmas. In Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7 like in Serbia. In South Africa, they also celebrate it in their ways like in Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan, and Egypt.

In Uganda, in my eight and a half years here, it is not about how much you have but with whom you are surrounded that makes your Christmas special.


Source: The Observer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

News Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter