Western Culture has made a huge influence on the Ethiopian society in recent years. The rate of travelers coming to Ethiopia and the mainstream media have – to a large extent – shoved Western culture on Ethiopians. Nowadays, a considerable number of Ethiopians, especially urbanites, have the desire to adopt Western cultures, be more westernized by eating westernized foods and be dressed up in western clothing. And now Addis Ababans seem to be celebrating Christmas the Western way, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
The “rewritten” Christmas tale in Addis Ababa suggests that Jesus Christ was born in a huge Chinese-made plastic Christmas tree surrounded with hundreds of incongruous lights and other ornaments.
This is, however, depicted in the malls of Addis Ababa such as Mafi and Morning Star; not in the church that is located across these malls.
The season of Jesus’s advent was welcomed in front of Mafi Mall, located off Cameroon Avenue, with a grand 16-meter tall Christmas tree, decorated with red stars, bedazzled balls, and bells imported from China.
In order to reach this tree, one has to pass through a golden shimmering gate. This tree created amusement among spectators and many were seen taking selfies with the modern-day Christmas tree. When you take a sneak peak inside the tree, there is the nativity scene with a two-dimensional cutout poster of pale white Mary and Joseph taken from Hollywood movies and a white doll depicting baby Jesus.
Facing the doll and posters are two live sheep tied to a rope, which seems out of place. This reenactment is in reference to Jesus being born in a stable.
“Why white Jesus, why not use the old Ethiopian iconography, or even give the baby a Semitic look?” The Reporterasked Bethlehem Assefa, marketing manager at Holy Event Organizer. “Isn’t Jesus white?” she responded.
The color of baby Jesus is a never-ending conversation as it always stirs controversy all over the world among Christians and Christian scholars.
In creating a “Christmas vibe” a few meters far away from the Christmas tree, there is a designated area for snow and layering of ice, though it does not snow in Addis Ababa.
The snow is not real; it is made of salt and cotton. Of course, the package has to be full to celebrate “Christmas” which does not go with the current weather of Addis so they recreated a scene where Christmas is cold and snowy.
This designated snow and layering of ice circles is a small dollhouse, which was placed in front of a picture of wintertime somewhere in Europe or America. The inside of the mall is also decorated with light and various decorations.
At the gate of the mall, two women are standing giving away gifts of wine, reminding the consumers of Mafi Mall that it is the holiday season. It also revealed that traditional Ethiopian Christmas can be completely washed away and be replaced with Western commercial Christmas. They were giving away “free gifts” packaged with advertisement of companies and promotional items.
In the past couple of years, these malls have been serving all too obviously as primary arena for Christmas preparation, observance, and a central location for the commemoration and promotion of one of Christianity’s biggest holidays.
This rendering of Christmas in the market place also led organizations such as Holy Event Organizer to have a new record of 16-meter-tall, 9-meter-wide Christmas tree.
A team of eight people worked to put the metal rods, put up the various plastic trees and decorated this tree within ten days. According to Bethlehem, this cost some 170,000 birr.
For Bethlehem, this brought new business opportunities where they decorated You Go City Church with 120 lights and various demands are coming. To plant this Christmas tree, they were paid 250,000 birr.
The main target of this huge tree, according to Bethlehem, was to lure consumers. And the use of evocative power of religious symbolism could clearly be seen.
Unfortunately, these religious symbolism, ritual, and myth, which continue to find expression in and through marketplaces, are not elements of Ethiopia or Ethiopian traditional Christmas celebration.
At Mafi Mall, there are Christmas carols “wishing a Merry Christmas and jolly season”. Disney character Mickey Mouse and MGM charger Barney are part of the Christmas festivity in this mall.
The American professor Clement Clark Moore created the image of Santa Clause but it was later popularized by Coca Cola advertisement campaign. To encourage sales, Coca Cola began to encourage consumers to purchase Coke by creating advertisement, and provided Santa with his customary red and white snow suit; the color choices for Santa Claus’ clothes (red and white) were Coca Cola logo colors. Coca Cola advertisement changed western Santa Claus’ robes and costumes. Incorporating this Santa brand, symbols of Santa are available in various malls, hotels, boutiques, and supermarkets.
This year at Mafi and Morning Star malls, “an Ethiopian Santa” is giving away gifts. Recently, a black Santa Claus at the Mall of America in Minnesota gave children of color of a cringe and racists took this issue to social media to denounce the black Santa, a retired US Army veteran. Despite all this controversy of denouncing a black Santa during the afternoons, the Ethiopian Santa gives away gifts, sponsored by Shoa Shopping Center.
The gifts include stationery materials, chocolate, toy cars that operate with a remote control. Daily, the Ethiopian Santa gives up to 150 gifts, which according to Bethlehem are priced from 50 to 1,800 birr.
Surprisingly, the 1,800 birr Christmas gift is an electric sheep that sings, Christmas carols, and walks. The sheep is not programmed to sing in Amharic.
For a couple of years, these malls became the greatest promoters of Christmas regularly surpassing the churches in preparation and zeal.
The new set of trend of the mall is they put a huge decorated Christmas tree, competing for record, hire a DJ and giving away gifts.
The gifts also have a package of sponsorship, advertisement, and promotion.
This juxtaposition of consumerism culture and the holidays, according to Bethlehem, was not only for Christmas but also for various holidays. These malls promote a discourse of abundance and fashion so customers can shop more. In Addis, before the arrival of the Christmas season, street vendors, supermarkets, and malls are fluttered with Christmas decorations. Various boutiques in Addis Ababa are displaying the red hat of Santa Claus. In addition to that, small micro-finance enterprises stage annual bazars at the Millennium Hall and Exhibition Center, thereby advertising Christmas shopping.
Various malls and bazars are playing loud music to lure everyone that Christmas is approaching and promoting sales. From the small shops, open markets to the big supermarkets are cluttered with the advertisement and hype of Christmas.
If Bob Geldof saw this hype of Christmas, would he re-release his supposedly altruistic pop song “Do they Know It’s Christmas?”
Originally written to help combat the Ethiopian famine of 1984, 30 years on, the updated version features pop-favorites such as Eid Sheeran, Sam Smith, and One Direction.
While Bob Geldof feels pity about Africa, a multicultural, a multi-religious society, contrary to his assumption, the holiday’s commercialism also exists within the continent. The western way of celebrating Christmas is also highly criticized for reaching a level of celebration of consumer capitalism as a religion. While many justify the hegemony of one culture, the homogeneity with globalization. Intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky say that, “Humanity is suffering from the major downside of corporate globalization.”
“Globalization could be designed so that it is beneficial to the general population or it could be designed so that it functions along the lines of the international trade agreements, including the Uruguay Round, the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which are all specifically designed as investor agreements, not even trade agreements,” according to Zena Birhane (PhD) a sociologist, who also sees this globalization as a cultural imperialism against the global south. At a conference held last week at the National Museum, Zena said that power relationships between the West and the Global South were such that they favor the more powerful. Contrary to the past, Zena believes using force such as colonization was shifting into neo-colonialism and imposing cultural value systems and standard of civilization. Looking the bigger picture of this cultural hegemony, Zena believes the powerful reinforces, shapes, and narrates using various media. Zena sees the shift of Ethiopian Christmas values in the spectrum of media imperialism. According to Zena, these popular cultures were not contested but consumed heavily. One example is the incorporation of western folk symbols such as reindeer – a species of deer native to the Arctic, regions of northern Europe, Siberia and North America.
A center for Disney cartoon figures, Morning Star Mall has a golden reindeer decorated with lights and ornaments. Like Mafi, Morning Star also erected eight meter tall Christmas tree and inside the tree there are bedazzled dolls that narrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
According to Solome Assefa, marketing manager of Morning Star, last year they were able to erect the “tallest Christmas tree in the city”. That tree cost around 300,000 birr and they tried to integrate “Ethiopian elements.”
“A lot of people were taking pictures and were sharing it on Facebook and it was a good feedback for us in bringing customers to our mall,” Solome says.
This year two weeks before western Christmas, they erected a Christmas tree on the outdoor area so it could be visible to passersby. Solome also talks about this Christmas trees as one of the marketing strategies of the mall, which is a subversion of religious meaning.
Following this trend of commercializing the holiday, Morning Star also introduced a package of giving away gifts (sweets, jewelry) by Santa Claus.
In the afternoons, dance competitions, circus shows, and dart competitions are held. With the aim of attracting customers, the biggest budget for this mall was advertisement on various media and payment for event organizers, which, according to Solome, was around 400,000 birr.
This sharp redefinition of Christmas in terms of consumption shows the power of the market. This is witnessed in various hotels of Addis such as Harmony Hotel, which targeted its foreign customers.
However, the Ethiopian Christmas, Gena, is celebrated a few weeks later, on the 7th of January. According to Etaferahu Habte, house-keeping manager of Harmony Hotel, the preparation started ten days prior to the western Christmas celebration. According to Etaferahu, the idea was giving a hype of “our/Ethiopian Christmas” before they departed to their destination.
Etaferahu says that every year they incorporated new decorative materials since it was constantly changing. They imported a 3-meter tall Christmas tree and a white doll Santa Claus from China.
“We want to create a welcoming feeling that they are home,” Etaferahu says.
She believes figures such as Santa Clause created a “home feeling” assuming everyone was a Christian, celebrates Christmas and forgetting the commercial element of Santa.
Etaferahu also bought a small Christmas tree a couple of years ago for five hundred birr. This symbol of Christmas seems to create a new narrative of Jesus’s birth.
When The Reporter forwarded a question about what a Christmas tree symbolized for her, Etaferahu struggled for words and said, “Jesus was born under a tree.”
This popular, western commercial culture of a Christmas tree seems to change the narrative of a poor Jesus who was born inside a stable.
This enchantment with modern Christmas is influencing not only urban dwellers, but also those living in rural areas of the country on how to celebrate Christmas and the way they portrayed Jesus. In the past Ethiopians celebrated Christmas in an intimate, spiritual manner, attaching a great communal value. Various games such as Yegenachewata were once popular among urban dwellers. The common saying “begena chewata ayikotum geta” (with Gena game, the master will not hold a grudge) is a fading from the local vocabulary. Now it is completely transformed into shopping and commercialization.
This confluence of Christianity and commerce is inducing stores to put a special effort to capture Christmas trade. According to Semira Sherefa, Shoa Supermarket branch manager, they brought Christmas trees annually, with a price range of 4,000 to 24,000 birr.
Semira says that these Christmas trees were mostly comprised of pre-orders of various companies, hotels, and institutions before the holiday. Though Shoa Supermarket does not target individuals, various markets such as the famous gift shop in Piazza, Easter, there are various sizes of trees ranging from 1.20 to 2.40 meters.
According to Yetnayet Kebede, tree price ranges from 345 to1500, birr while last year the price range was 575 to 1,800 birr.
Yetnayet claims the abundance of importers who sell cheap materials lowered the price. Their Christmas trees mainly come from Dubai and China. Mostly their customers are newly–wed couples, families, and business centers.
Representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church condemn Christmas trees as ‘alien’, ‘pagan’, ’unchristian’, and which did not have a foundation in Christianity.
Contrary to the condemnation, Christmas trees are purchased routinely, and according to Yetnayet, sales were increasing every year.
According to Yetnayet, the popularity of Christmas plastic trees came around 2003 with a popular bazar in the exhibition center. Before the plastic tress, in the 1990’s there was a culture of Christmas trees made of juniper trees. It is not only in Piazza; in one of the open markets of Shola, more than the ordinary day consumers were flocking, bright, and colorful.
In shop number 107, Esayas Girma is happy about Christmas season, which brought him opportunity of selling Christmas trees and ornaments of various sizes. According to Esayyas, a lot of people bought 1.2 meter (320 to 450 birr) and 1.4 meter (450 to 575 birr) trees based on their simplicity, space and affordability.
According to Esayas, many of his customers did not think it was a western culture; rather was heavily incorporated, and taken as Ethiopian.
In neighborhoods such as Summit, the price of the tree ranges from 400 to 950 birr. The decorating ornaments such as lighting are 70 to 100 birr, bedazzled balls 100 to120 birr, a Santa-modeled doll 65 birr.
At the Millennium Hall, the price range and variety of tries increases. They have a variety of trees including for bachelors, families, and companies.
Various booth owners at the Millennium Hall constantly were trying to persuade customers based on the quality and fashion of the trees. Inside the mall, a trader told the Reporter that new Christmas trees came with a fully-decorated package. In addition to that, new ornaments such as lightingalso penetrated the market. In average, the price of these Christmas trees ranges from 250 to 4000 birr. The importers are increasing in number.
At the National Museum conference, Solomon, an economist and consultant with many international organizations, cites the figure of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority. According to the figure from 2011to 2015, Ethiopia imported 3.453 million dollar worth of Christmas trees and ornaments, of which the 2015 figure alone was USD 930,000.
Ed.’s Note: Mehreteselassie Mokonnen of The Reporter has contributed to this story.