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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 02:04 GMT
Nigerian Christmas without 'evil' Santas
By Senan Murray
BBC News website, Abuja

There are no Christmas decorations, the radio stations are still playing hip-hop and rap and some children recoil at an image of Santa decrying it as evil.

Some children in Nigeria prefer masquerades to Santa

"His costume looks phoney and his face is strange," says eight-year-old Ifunanya Chima when shown a picture of the benign bearded old man in his trademark red cloak with white fur trimmings.

"We prefer masquerades," he told me referring to the traditional colourful dancing which is a big part of the festive season here.

And there is also hope of a white-ish Christmas in this sub-Saharan West African country.

For a dusty harmattan haze hangs over most of the country as the north-east trade wind sweeps in from the Sahara Desert.

Markets across the country are heaving with punters hoping to net late bargains.

Ghost cities

Colourful dancers, Nigeria
Christmas is a time for new clothes, family reunions and colourful dances in Nigeria

Soon, the major cities will become ghost cities as most people return to their native villages to share the traditional "Christmas rice".

"I can't spend Christmas in Abuja," says Nick Ibechukwu who owns a business in Nigeria's capital city.

"I have to go back to my village in the east to join the rest of my family and relatives because this is the only time in the year that we get to see one another."

Christmas in Nigeria is a time for new clothes, long distance travels for family reunions, and lots of colourful masquerade dances in most villages.

Religious differences

And for now, it does not matter that half of Nigeria's 130 million people are Muslims with a handful of pagans.

At Christmas, most Nigerians forget their religious differences and just share their Christmas rice - a dish of boiled rice eaten with very spicy chicken stew.

"I celebrate Christmas because it's a time for loads of fun," says Ibrahim Idris, a Muslim in Abuja.

Christmas clothes take the place of Christmas gifts as excited children and adults try to outdo one another in showing off their best wear during the festive season.

There are big retreats for Nigeria's fast-growing Pentecostal Christian sects, but these retreats sometimes look like bazaars as they throw up business opportunities for some enterprising people.

Increased highway robberies

Ironically, highway armed robberies are more common during the Christmas season in Nigeria.

Colourful dancers, Nigeria
Dance groups take over village squares to offer free entertainment

And since most city dwellers travelling to their villages for the holiday season have to drive on pothole-ridden roads due to the absence of a functional rail system, road accidents tend to be more frequent.

In the village, Christmas becomes more colourful, with masquerades and dance groups taking over the village square to offer free entertainment for all.

The incorporation of masquerade into Christmas festivities shows the growing influence of traditional African religious rituals on Christianity in Nigeria.

It also shows that many Nigerians have stopped attaching great religious importance to Christmas and simply see it as a social event.

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