How We Celebrate Christmas in Rwanda

Christmas Around the World

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This week and next we're inviting chefs, writers, and friends to share what Christmas and the winter holidays look like in their corner of the world. First up: Josh Ruxin, an entrepreneur, restaurateur, and author of A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope and a Restaurant in Rwanda.

Little Rwanda, a nation of 12 million people, located smack in the middle of Africa, is one of the last places I know of where the holidays still are as they should be. There’s no Black Friday shopping, no insane race for reservations at Michelin starred restaurants, no gift-guide inspired lists.

You might be thinking about what most people associate with Rwanda – 1994’s horrific genocide – but today’s Rwanda is pristine, safe, and a moving place to spend the holidays for those who take no joy from the cold.

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In fact, right around Christmas week, the current “cold” rainy season (high 80s, lows in the 50s) should be finishing and we’ll be into the dry season. That weather and Rwanda’s lovely people are what has kept me, my wife, and our three kids there for eight years. My wife manages Heaven, Rwanda’s top restaurant, which she built six years ago to create jobs for the nation’s youth. Christmas Eve is sure to be one of our biggest nights of the year, as it kicks off Rwanda’s holiday season.

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Kigali, the nation’s capital, is thought by many to be the most pristine in on the continent. There are sidewalks nearly everywhere which will be filled with hundreds of thousands late on Christmas Eve as they make their way to church. Their beautiful prayers and songs will permeate the hills of the city where skyscrapers are going up, yet there are still micro-plots of land farmed for maize, beans, and cassava. On the very street where we live, our kids love to see the goats munching on the foliage of the neighborhood. Those goats, not used for their milk, will make it on to many a Christmas day barbeque. In the early afternoon on Christmas Day, traditional wood-charcoal fires will light up across the nation. Most will be three-stone fires, some of which will have a metal grate to support the bounty.

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While Coca-Cola has raised a Christmas tree or two at roundabouts in town, there are few Christmas trees to be found in homes nor lofty childhood expectations of Santa Claus. Among the upper class that has been exposed to Christmas elsewhere, there will be gifts exchanged. But for most, this will be a day for relaxation, prayer, and brochettes. Grilled beef and goat, fried potatoes, and rice will be the centerpiece of most meals – for many families this will be one of the few days of the year when meat will be the part of the meal. There will also be isombe – mashed cassava leaves – and green bananas slowly cooked in tomato sauce. For a kick, brave family members will grab a bottle or tear dropper of Akabanga, an outrageously spicy piri-piri concoction of oil and birds’ eye chile that has become a national condiment.

It will soon be back to work for nearly everyone until the main event of the season: New Year’s Eve. That’s right: New Years is the cornerstone of the holiday season in Rwanda. By far, it is the most exciting night of celebration and festivities. Although last-minute planning characterizes the evening, one thing is certain: everyone will be going out.

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Alissa and I learned this the hard way back when we opened Heaven Restaurant in 2008. We ran a beautiful New Year’s dinner with filet mignon smothered in a cassava chimichurri and rum bread pudding covered with caramel sauce. It was a mellow evening, and at around 10pm we were bidding adieu to the few remaining customers when hundreds of Rwandan partygoers began to appear – with no prior reservations of course. We all danced on the floor until the early hours of the New Year, and then retreated to our families and a day off, the only one Heaven takes during the course of the year.

This year we’ll be doing our best to encourage reservations, as our beautiful terrace maxes out around 200 customers. I don’t think we’ll have much trouble filling up that evening, as Rwandans have so much to be proud of and to celebrate in what will be the 20th year of their peace, stability, and prosperity.

Christmas Around the World

We're celebrating Christmas and the winter holidays around the world, inviting friends and fellow writers from The Philippines to France to Rwanda to share how the holidays are celebrated in their corner of the world.

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Christmas Around the World

(Image credits: Josh Ruxin)