NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Carrying a few of her belongings, Hellen Akinyi waited to board a bus bound for western Kenya to join her family for the Christmas celebrations.
Akinyi, who is Catholic, said she was looking forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ with her relatives living in Kisumu, a Kenyan port city on Lake Victoria.
“It’s a very important holiday for me,” said Akinyi. “It’s time to celebrate with loved ones with good foodstuff and catch up with old friends."
Akinyi is one of thousands of Christians who are traveling to various parts of the country to see their loved ones during this festive time of year.
But the Catholic Church is urging the more than 85 percent of Kenyans who are Christians to also care for the needy during the Christmas season.
“As we celebrate Christmas, let us remember and help one another,” Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Religion News Service in an exclusive interview. “God loved us and he gave us his son. Let us share the joy and whatever we have with the poor, orphans and widows.”
Christmas is a joy to millions of Christians in this east African nation. Traditionally, Christmas in Kenya starts a few days early. Locals here prepare for a big day by making local brew and slaughtering animals in big numbers for feasts. They buy nice dresses and special food like rice and chicken. Local churches are decorated with huge Christmas trees adorned with sculptures of Jesus lying in the manger with the shepherds looking on.
Akinyi, like other Kenyans, takes Christmas as a day of leisure, coming together with family and friends to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. On Christmas Eve, men and women gather around pots of local brew to celebrate and wish one another a merry Christmas, she said.
“I just want to feel nice this Christmas,” Akinyi said. “I’m going to cook very delicious food for my children using the money I have been saving since early this year. I have already bought them new dresses and shoes. I’m also planning to take them out to celebrate on the streets. I want everyone in my family to feel great and honored this Christmas.”
But the 35-year-old mother of four also echoed the bishop's message about Christmas: "The most important thing is to allow the Lord into our lives.”
Anyolo reminded Kenya’s 9 million Catholics that the Christmas season should not be for merrymaking alone but also a period for reconciliation with one another and God. Anyolo appealed to Christians to use the season to renew their faith in Christ and to uphold his teachings of love and obedience.
“Let us think well of one another and forgive each other this festive season, because God is love,” Anyolo said. “I urge Christians to rededicate their lives to Christ and live a moral life.”
Anyolo, who was recently appointed archbishop of Kisumu by Pope Francis, encouraged Catholics to provide food to hungry families, visit care homes, refugee camps, hospitals and prisons, and help one another because “Christmas is a gift.”
“When we feed the hungry, help the poor and remember orphans, then we would have really celebrated Christmas. We need to be inspired by Christ’s example of service to others. Christ fed the hungry, helped the poor and showed compassion to everyone who was in need,” Anyolo said.
Many Kenyans who have little with which to celebrate this Christmas are excited by Anyolo’s message of goodwill.
Diana Auma, a widow, said the bishop’s message was timely. She said financial struggles had made her forget about Christmas.
“I’m happy about his message — he has really encouraged me,” said Auma, 42, a mother of three. “I have just realized that Christmas is not about having nice dresses and eating good food. It’s about the love of Jesus toward us.”