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In Kenya, It's Beginning to Look a Lot More Like Christmas

The meaning and expression of Christmas is changing in Kenya, with more and more people buying expensive gifts and many choosing to stay in the city or go to the coast rather than travel to the country villages to visit extended family. Cathy Majtenyi visited her neighborhood department store in the capital Nairobi and files this report for VOA.

A plastic mechanical Santa Claus, clothed in his red velvet suit and hat, dips and sways as he greets shoppers perusing the isles of Nakumatt, one of Kenya's largest department store chains.

Christmas trees twinkle as the shoppers browse among microwaves, fridges, clothing, toys, books, and other goods, checking to see what gifts their holiday budgets will enable them to take home.

Elizabeth Kisebu and her husband and two children are looking for a Christmas tree and cards in the stationery section.

She tells VOA she has been putting money aside all year to buy Christmas gifts for her family. Kisebu says she intends to spend up to 20,000 shillings, or close to $290, for this year's gifts, much more than the 5,000 shillings, or around $72 she used to spend some five years ago.

For Kisebu, holiday expenses are a pressure to her. She shares with VOA how Christmas has changed for her since the days of her childhood.

"It's very different," she said. "When I was small, there was a lot of excitement, you know, you go to church. But now, not a lot of premium is placed on going to church. We are more concerned with, what are we going to eat, what are we going to wear. The meaning seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. I guess for Africans maybe it's different. It wasn't really gift buying and stuff like that, but like I said, times are changing."

On the other end of the store, a real-life Santa Claus, Nakumatt employee Jacob Yiega, rings his bell and winks at the children darting in and out of the isles.

He says he was inspired to become Santa because of Christmas movies he has seen coming from the West and novels he read growing up.

As a child, Yiega recalls how people used to give each other small gifts as a way of commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Now, he says, the season is referred to as "X-mas" and most people's focus is on the presents.

"Nowadays, you see people can go and buy something worth about 5,000, 6,000 [shillings; about $80], but long time ago, somebody can just come with a bunch of bananas and give you like a gift, but nowadays, people go and buy big, huge items as a Christmas gift," he said. "When they walk with their parents, children run and come and say, 'Daddy, I want this, I want a toy, I want such a thing.' But long time ago, your parents would go to the shop and buy something and give it to you."

Yiega says that the most favorite and popular gifts for children are dresses, suits, and other clothing as, Yiega explains, children consider Christmas to be a time to wear new things that will last for the following year.

James Ndongo, who is in charge of the appliance and electronic section at this Nakumatt branch, tells VOA the increased spending he witnesses in his department, which he attributes to growing Western influence and culture, is a sign of good economic times in Kenya.

"If you even ask some people, 'Why do you think you can afford to buy this at this time and you're telling me down about two or three years' time [ago] you couldn't,' you find some, even young people, just saying right now they're able to buy something because it is easier to get even access to loans in the banks," he explained.

The focus on buying bigger and better gifts has changed the way many people spend their holidays. Traditionally, most people left the cities at Christmas time to join their extended families in villages in the countryside.

Now, many are opting to stay in the city or spend a few days at a resort on Kenya's coast.

Shopper Kisebu explains why.

"Previously it [Christmas] was more to do with being together as a family," she said. "But now, if being together as a family means being together with extended family, it's a lot of money, so you'd rather sometimes even just spend time on your own, with your little family. You have 20,000 (shillings) to spread among fewer people if you're just immediate family, but if you have to everywhere, you have to spread it a little thinner."

But the season is not just about consumerism, says Patricia Mbatia, public relations officer at the television cable company Multi-Choice Kenya.

Her company is one of several that have banded together to encourage shoppers to donate food and other items for poor children living in up to 300 children's homes across Kenya. All Nakumatt locations across the country have bins where people can donate groceries, clothing, books, and other supplies for the children.

Mbatia says she and her colleagues saw impressive results from the campaign last year.

"I think Christmas has a certain aura about it, about giving, because lots of people are shopping and there's all this excitement. I think it's an easier time for people to give," she said.

Mbatia says the level of donations keeps rising. Last year's tally was about $72,000's worth of food and materials; the year before that was $43,000 and, when the campaign first began several years ago, about $14,000.