The History of Christmas in Nigeria:  First celebrated December 25, 1842

By: Dr. Raphael James

For over 200 years, Christmas has been celebrated as a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural celebration. It is the day celebrated by Christians as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Who was born in Bethlehem, to Joseph and Mary in a stable, in the inn, with angels announcing the news to shepherds who then disseminated the message. Although the month and date of Jesus’ birth are unknown, between the early-to-mid 4th century the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date which was later adopted by all. Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world.

December 25 date was probably selected because it was the date the Romans marked as the winter solstice and Jesus was identified with the Sun based on an Old Testament verse. The date is exactly nine months following annunciation, when the conception of Jesus is celebrated. December 25 was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Jesus chose to be born on the shortest day of the year for symbolic reasons, according to an early sermon by Augustine: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” Linking Jesus to the Sun was supported by various Biblical passages. Jesus was considered to be the “Sun of righteousness” prophesied by Malachi. John describes him as “the light of the world.”

December 25, Christmas Day, became a federal holiday in the United States in 1870. Meanwhile in 1838, about 500 freed slaves settled in Freetown chartered a ship and sailed to Badagry in Lagos, among them was James Ferguson, a leader of a trading group and a Methodist who sought and was granted the approval of the King of Badagry to write a letter to the Missionaries stationed in Sierra Leone for the propagation of Badagry in what is today Nigeria.

Ferguson on March 2nd, 1841, sent a letter to Rev. Dove, for the Missionary committee in London and on September 23, 1841 he got a reply, with the arrival of Reverend Thomas Birch Freeman in a small vessel named “SPY” which anchored in Gberefu (KLEFU) Sea Beach. Rev. Freeman was accompanied by two African assistants: William De Graft and his wife both from Ghana (Gold Coast). Freeman had come to preach Christianity for the first time, the next day he was taken to Asisoe Tin, under the Agia tree, where the first sermon of Christianity was first preached.

Freeman later left to Abeokuta to honour an invitation from King Sodeke to preach Christianity to slave returnees who had relocated from Badagry to settle in Abeokuta. He arrived Abeokuta in the morning of Sunday December 11, 1842 in a heroic reception, he held his first service at Shodeke’s palace.

On December 24th, Rev. Freeman and his companions returned to Badagry only to meet Rev. Henry Townsend of church Missionaries society [CMS now Anglican] who had arrived Badagry on December 17th. The following morning which was Christmas Day, Rev. Freeman returned to AGIA TREE with Rev. Townsend to celebrate the first Christmas in Nigeria on December 25, 1842. The Christmas service was attended by a large and devoted congregation made up of the Badagry people, the resident Europeans in Badagry and the returnees who had settled in Badagry. Rev. Townsend read the scripture and Rev. Freeman preached the day’s sermon on “The incarnation Redeemer of Mankind.”

The famous Agia tree fell on June 1959 after leaving for over 300 years. Today, Christmas is celebrated with music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. Santa Claus or Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.

Dr Rapheal James is an Author, a Researcher, Curator, Tourist Ambassador, Director General Center For Research, Information Management and Media Development (CRIMMD – CRIMMD FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY, Photo Museum of Nigeria History, Publisher of African Dame and The National Biographer Magazine, author of 20 books, won 74 awards

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