At one time, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ was a big deal across predominantly Christian Cameroon. Worshippers of the Biblical savior, Muslims and even pagans in the Central African nation usually began preparations way in advance.
But in recent years, Christmas has steadily been losing appeal in many Cameroonian households.
There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm apparent this year as I stroll along the major shopping districts of Cameroon’s largest city Douala.
It’s only a few hours to Christmas day, and yet, I can hardly hear any carols blaring from roadside speakers. Only a small number of shop fronts and trees along the street are adorned with characteristic Christmas decorations.
On the streets, sweat-soaked hawkers and visibly nervous shop vendors are shouting discounts in an effort to entice scant numbers of last-minute Christmas shoppers.
On trader tells me she has imported a container of toys, dresses, ornaments and electronic appliances, but has not sold up to a quarter of the seasonal goods. She says she’ll either incur huge losses by selling the rest at giveaway prices or be stuck with them for one year.
Reports from rural areas indicate similar declines in enthusiasm. About half of Cameroon’s 20 million inhabitants live in poverty and family wage-earners say the escalating cost of living no longer permits extravagant expenditures.
"The Christmas spirit is not still in me. It’s not like it’s only me because even when you move on the streets, you don’t feel it," one Douala resident tells me.
"I think," says another, "it’s because of the economic crisis we’re facing at this moment. When you go to the markets and shopping centers, you see less people. It’s not like the previous years."
In some homes, there’s tension. According to the press, spouses are threatening divorce and kids are on the verge of unrest. They don’t understand why they’re not getting budgets to cook special meals or for new dresses and toys.
This might have been good news for some clergymen who have over the years frowned at the overly materialistic and commercial influences on Christmas. But this year, there’s even apathy among some of the faithful.
"I don’t quite remember the last time I went for Christmas Eve," one man tells me. " It’s been about 4 or 5 years I’ve not been to church on Christmas Day and it’s really unfortunate because for a Christian, God is not going to be very happy with us."
"What if I go to church in the morning and then in the afternoon I don’t have anything to eat? Then why will I be going to church?," says another.
One group stands out in the fairly subdued mood -- Chinese traders.
Amid widespread inflation and the absence of locally manufactured goods, they’ve again topped sales charts with comparatively cheap products. Among the big sellers are three-piece suits for kids now selling for as little as five dollars.
"Chinese, yes. Because we Africans have a bigger family so we’re thinking about everybody. You cannot go and start buying expensive. You buy cheaper and satisfy everybody," one shopper confides.
"I opt for Chinese goods because they’re cheaper even though they’re not durable but they provide much for less money," says another.
In the meantime, economists predict Christmases will be subdued as as long as the gloomy business climate and high unemployment rates continue.