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Christmas In Igboland by Ugo Ekemezie

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Christmas In Igboland: The Igbo Yearly Return

Annually, the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria engage in what has become a mandatory “ritual.” This is the mass exodus of the Igbo in the diaspora with their families from across different places in Nigeria and the world, back home to their respective villages, communities and town for the December holidays. Chances are that you might have heard a conversation by Igbo people about this, where something like- “anam ala ulo Disemba,” which by interpretation means, “I am going home for December” was spoken. 

The Yearly Return Yesterday

Historically, the Igbo are migratory. They move from place to place for various reasons including trade, religion, warfare, settlement, marriages and multiple socio-political and economic factors that helps(ed) the development of intergroup relations in Nigeria, even in pre-colonial times. Significantly, the history of the Igbo annual return predates European/British colonial engagement in Nigeria. It is, however, ridiculously anachronistic to box this fundamental historical social phenomenon of the Igbo people, like many others which aided intergroup relations across the peopling of Nigeria to a Colonial or Postcolonial development.


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Alongside the dibias (that is, traditional medicine men) and peddlers of all sorts of assorted wares and tradable objects, who travel far from home in the practice of their trade, some itinerant traditional professions like blacksmithing engage in this tradition. The ancient practice of blacksmithing which developed across Igboland was facilitated by the itinerant trading. As a result, economic historian, Onwuka Njoku explain that 

Most smithing communities celebrated their profession once a year- a few such as Umugwu Ekwom and Awka held it twice. The Abiriba called it “Emume Anya uzu”; Awka, Akputakpu; Nkwere, Oriri Ogadazu; and Udi, Eke Otutu or Akputakpu. The timing of the celebration varied, but generally this is between either December and March or August and October. It was mandatory for smiths on travel to return home for the celebration. The itinerant smiths bore this in mind and structured their work calendar to take account of it. Failure to return attracted severe penalty, except for excusable reasons. In such a case, the smith sent his own contribution for the purpose of making a sacrifice to the smithing deity. Failure to return on three consecutive seasons without any acceptable reasons led to the defaulter being banished from his town.

However, it is important to state that while the traditional Awka society undertook two waves of yearly returns (every second month, corresponding to May/June of the Gregorian calendar; and the seventh month (October/November) created after the Agulu (smith) section was established), it should also be stressed that it is not only blacksmiths who made these travels to Awka and across Igboland.

The Yearly Return Today

Over the years, there have been significant changes in the events and activities that characterize the yearly return. In postcolonial Nigeria, some prominent features continue to encourage this “August visit.” In case you are wondering some of the activities that highlight the annual December homecoming or the activities that returnees engage in during this period; herein are snippets into some of the activities that characterize them.

1. Family Reunion

One of the most salient features of the annual homecoming is Family Reunion. Though comically stated yet because of the migratory nature of the Igbo of Nigeria, they are arguably found everywhere in the world except in “ghost-land.” Therefore, through the yearly return, siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces and member of close and extended families who live all over Nigeria and the world are reunited and family bonds strengthened. It affords families the year(s) long opportunity to reconnect and have much-needed family time. Grandparents get to see their children and grand/great-grandchildren and vice versa, most of which the constraints of physical distance poses a strong barrier and phone conversation is never enough. Relations (cousins, nephews and nieces) get the chance to meet and interact with each other, some for the first time. This alone is a strong argument for the longevity of the yearly reunion or return.

2. Attend extended family and village meetings

A major character of the traditional Igbo socio-political structure is the village democracy. The agent for the fostering of this democratic process is the Nzuko Umunna (or kindred meeting). Also, after the Nigeria-Biafran War in 1970, a prominent feature in Igboland is the establishment of Community Development unions or associations by the people to help rebuild their lives after the destructive war. However, the December annual return presents an opportunity for having a good number of people to be available for family/kindred, village, community-wide, and Development Unions/Associations meetings to be held and decisions on how best to move forward agreed. 

3. Festivals, Entertainment &Food

Some important village festivals are held during the December annual return. As a result, some returnees look forward to being entertained even by masquerades and other traditional means of entertainment that are not obtainable in cities where they are the diaspora community. In addition, sporting activities like football is one of the prominent activities to look forward to. Private individuals, organizations and the community organizes football competition among various groups especially among all villages within the community. They set price tags for the Cup (that is the first position), and the first and second runners up. During this competition, almost the whole community can be found in the football pitch, cheering and supporting their village teams to ensure that the team return to the village with the prized-Cup. 

A major attraction to return home is the food. The cost of getting Nigerian delicacies abroad is usually expensive and the annual return is an opportunity for many Igbo people to eat local delicacies and arrange foodstuffs for the journey back.

4. Attending Events

Significantly, events remarkably colour the festive period. Individuals, organizations and communities with special events tend to choose and fix dates within this December period of yearly return because it guarantees greater participation and attendance. Such events like wedding ceremonies, church bazaar, thanksgiving and special programs, and even burials and political meetings are common within this period. As a result, most Igbo people in the diaspora that engage in the annual return can account that they have and will engage in at least one of these in the list. 


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5. Philanthropy

Among many others, philanthropic exercises and activities are the spice of this period. Some of the returnees choose this period to share part of their wealth to help members of the community and the community at large. While some engage in building activities and other personal ventures, a beautiful demonstration of love for one’s people and community is visible. As community members visit the returnees to welcome them, they share monies, goods and opportunities to better the lives of members of the community. Also, some of them organize alms-giving events to share part of their wealth with the needy in the community. In addition, for the Igbo businessmen and women returning to their homeland, it is a period to settle their old apprentices and scout for new apprentices. Alongside this, at the end of the stay, returnees return to their various locations with other members of their extended families and village to either put them in school or any other venture that will ensure their stakes are better.

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Source:

Onwuka N. Njoku, “The itinerant Igbo Smiths of Precolonial Nigeria,” Nsukka Journal of Humanities, no. 7 (December 1994).

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Ugo Ekemezie

Ugo loves learning. He aspires to help others get better. And enjoys having fun!

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