Christmas in Liberia

Home / Christmas / Christmas in Liberia

From the fascinating Atlas Obscura site cones this account of  west African Christmas.

The Christmas season in Liberia is marked by the sounds of children singing and playing in the streets. Seasonal music plays a large role in cities such as the capital, Monrovia. Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist based there, says that children go from door to door singing Christmas carols and asking for candy. “I mean, the spirit is everywhere,” she says. “It’s an incredibly festive time.”

Azango remembers the year she spent the holidays in the United States, and how she wanted to see a white Christmas for the first time. It didn’t take long for her to miss home. “I missed Liberia so much,” she explains. “I didn’t understand why everyone was locked away in their homes and I couldn’t see anybody on the streets. Where was Old Man Bayka?”

Old Man Bayka—or “Old Man Beggar”—might be considered the opposite of Santa Claus. He’s not necessarily evil, but Old Man Bayka is associated with the “dancing devils,” spirits that come from the world of the Poro, or the “bush,” of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. In a 2015 NPR story about the dancing devils, former Liberian journalist Max Bankole Jarrett associates the figure with secret societies that have always been part of certain ethnic communities in modern Liberia. These dancing devils used to feature in traditional festivals, before the region was colonized in the early 19th century.


The nation of Liberia began to form when the American Colonization Society, an organization of white men, was founded with the goal of resettling freed Black slaves and free people of color (many of them of mixed race) outside the United States. The plan was predicated on the idea that Black people could never integrate with American society, and was opposed by both the Black community and abolitionists. Colonization societies in five different U.S. states merged their holdings to form a single new colony. With this colony—only a few thousand Black Americans emigrated—came Western traditions and celebrations, Christmas among them. All over the world Christmas has incorporated local, pre-Christian beliefs, so the dancing devil now called Old Man Bayka became a holiday fixture.

Unlike Santa Claus, who gives presents, Old Man Bayka goes from house to house asking for money and gifts for himself. In place of shiny boots and a red jacket trimmed with white fur, “Old Man Bayka wears old clothes,” Azango says. “Sometimes he will have a fake beard on and will have a mask on his face.” Old Man Bayka costumes vary. While some wear baggy old clothing and masks, others travel on stilts or are covered in raffia straw. They are always followed by the sounds of traditional drums.

What makes Old Man Bayka such a central part of the holiday season in Liberia is the spirit of community he carries. According to Azango, many masked dancers portraying the figure are originally from the villages in the country’s interior. “These people dress up as Old Man Bayka to dance and raise money to buy toys to share with the children in their villages,” she says. Not only was Old Man Bayka a source of entertainment for city-dwellers, but he also became a resource for those in different socioeconomic circumstances. Giving them money and gifts was a way to share prosperity in the interests of community.

Old Man Bayka’s fusion with Christmas traditions did not take away his quintessentially Liberian character. “This tradition is really unique to this country,” says Azango. “Everywhere Old Man Bayka goes, children and families are following behind, enjoying the dancing and the music.”

Belarus and Christmas Tree Ornaments

Home / Christmas / Belarus and Christmas Tree Ornaments

An old Belarusian legend tells of a mother and father walking through the forest with their children, looking for just the right Christmas tree. A fairy appeared holding a beautifully decorated tree covered with ornaments representing all the colors of the rainbow. Alinka, their young daughter, excitedly called out to her mother, “Here is our jalinka.” The delighted family told their neighbors, and the news of this miracle soon spread throughout the country. To replicate the fairy’s tree, people began constructing geometric shapes from straw dyed in an assortment of colors. Today, ubory (the making of straw ornaments) is an art form, which takes a great amount of skill and patience to master.

Here is a guide to the symbolism of such ornaments:


Home / Christmas / Santathon

In a quest to find Great Britain’s ultimate Santa, organizers at Guinness World Records sponsored the first-ever Santathon in December 2001. The event included a field of eight top contenders donned in full beards, red suits, and black boots. Competitive events included sack hauling, pie eating, chimney climbing, stocking filling, and ho-ho-hoing. First prize was awarded to David Broughton-Davis, 43, from Croydon, a professional department store Santa.

Numerous contests of a similar nature take place around the world and we shall be covering those in the coming days. For example, in the category of most participants dressed as Santa in a road race the Guinness Book of World Record says that the largest Santa Claus run consists of 4,983 participants, and was achieved by the J&A Racing (USA) in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA, on 17 December 2016. The record was achieved at the annual Great Outdoor Provision Co. Surf-n-Santa 5 Miler.


Stir-Up Sunday

Home / Christmas / Stir-Up Sunday

Stir-Up Sunday is the last Sunday before Advent, deriving its name from the first two words of the Church of England reading for that day: “Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people that they plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works.” This has been parodied by generations of choirboys as “Stir up we beseech thee the pudding in the pot. And when we get home, we’ll eat it up all hot.”

An English tradition requires that the Christmas pudding be stirred up, with each family member taking a turn and making a wish — some insist that the stirring must be performed clockwise and with eyes closed.  This may derive from the custom of stirring from East to West because the Magi arrived in Bethlehem from the East. The day also announces to school children the approach of the Christmas holidays.

Christmas Misinformation

Home / Christmas / Christmas Misinformation


Annual Christmas Number


Fruitcake. In the days before the idea of minted coinage penetrated the Germanic forests of western Europe, fruitcakes were a handy and durable medium of exchange.

Santa Claus. The figure of “Santa Claus” in American popular culture is actually conflated from two traditional figures of European folklore. St. Nicholas of Myra was traditionally said to bring good children fruits, confections, and baked treats on Christmas Eve. Santa Clausewitz brought them toy machine guns, tanks, and remote-controlled fighter planes.

Saturnalia. Before Christianity, the ancient Romans celebrated the midwinter festival of Saturnalia to mark the point in the year when retail sales traditionally began to pick up again.

Season, Reason for the. A campaign by French Catholics to keep the “Christ” in “Noël” inexplicably never caught on.

Tinsel. Overharvesting has led to a drastic decline in the natural tinsel forests of the Amazon, leading some environmentalists to predict that tinsel will be entirely extinct by 2050.

A 30-Second Christmas Sermon

Home / Christmas / A 30-Second Christmas Sermon

441 AD

Cyrus Panopolites was a renowned poet and a high-ranking official in the Eastern Roman Empire, achieving the lofty post of Praetorian Prefect. He was successful in his diplomatic negotiations and was responsible for rebuilding the walls of Constantinople. For some reason, he fell afoul of the emperor Theodosius II who accused him of being  pagan and stripped him of his position. Rumour had it that the emperor was jealous of Cyrus’s popularity with the people of Constantinople.

Having no future in the civil service, Cyrus entered the Church and became a priest. To his surprise, the emperor named him a bishop and sent him to preside over the see of Cotaeum in Phrygia, far from the capital. The reason for this appointment was apparent: the unruly citizens of Cotaeum had murdered their last four bishops and the emperor was clearly hoping that that they would do the same to Cyrus.

On Christmas day Cyrus was officiating at his church when the mob, anxious to see what sort of man their new bishop was and whether he was really a pagan, loudly demanded that he preach to them. Cyrus mounted to the pulpit and gave the following sermon.

Brethren, let the birth of God our Saviour Jesus Christ be honoured with silence, because the Word of God was conceived in the holy Virgin through hearing alone. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

The oration was greeted with great enthusiasm instead of a lynching and Cyrus went to become a beloved bishop.

Suffragette Christmas Cards

Home / Christmas / Suffragette Christmas Cards

Christmas is such an important event that groups seeking attention for their causes use the season to advertise their messages. We can see this with PETA’s advertisements about a “turkey holocaust”, atheists denying the divinity of Jesus, or anti-war groups calling for peace.

The struggle in the early twentieth century for votes for women produced Christmas cards trumpeting the suffragist line.

The controversy also prompted opposition Christmas cards.