DAKAR – Senegal, home to the largest mosque in West Africa and with a 95 percent Muslim population, is widely recognized for its strict adherence to Islam. And yet each year at Christmas, streets and city squares are aglow with holiday lights and storefronts filled with tinsel and Christmas trees. So, how do Senegalese people reconcile their devotion to Islam with their love of the Christian holiday?
Street vendors carrying skull caps and prayer beads weave in and out traffic in Dakar’s busy Sandaga Market.
It’s a typical weekday in this Muslim majority country, where taxi drivers often pull over to pray on the sidewalk and mosques can be found just about everywhere even on the beach.
But in December, Senegal’s vendors also peddle shimmering tinsel, metal ornaments, and plastic Christmas trees.
Ndiaga Gueye sells Christmas trees for between $20 to 50, depending on the size. He said he typically sells two per day.
“It’s mostly Muslims who buy the trees, because Senegal is a secular country,” he said. “Everyone is the same. Christians participate in Muslim holidays and Muslims do the same during Christian holidays. But, it’s mostly Muslims who buy the [Christmas] trees.”
This time of year, Christmas decorations light up Dakar’s city squares and storefronts.
At La Parisienne bakery, snowflakes are glued to the windows and nutcrackers adorn countertops.
Business director Abibou Dadh said his customers love the decorations. “Senegal’s Christians also celebrate Muslim holidays such as Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, known as Tabaski,” he said.
“These days Christians celebrate Tabaski and our Christian brothers accompany us by celebrating it with us,” he said. “So it is normal for us Muslims to try to accompany Christians, to celebrate Christmas with them. We are a united people. We are all the same. There is no difference. Certainly each respects the other in his difference and in his religion.”
At restaurant Patisseries des Ambassades, the servers wear Santa Claus hats and aprons.
Outside, Abdou Diop is dressed in a Santa Claus suit and sitting on a sleigh. Behind him a horse-drawn cart rolls along the street.
It’s 80 degrees and sunny, but Diop said the heavy costume and beard don’t bother him. When he was little, he said his parents would take him to sit on Santa’s lap — a fond memory.
He said, it demonstrates the social inclusion that’s so prevalent in their country. They’re united, they’re one. When Muslims celebrate their holidays, the Christians participate, and vice versa. It shows the social cohesion and the strength of Senegal.
While Muslim Senegal’s Christmas is limited to the commercial and secular, it is still a celebration of the Christian holiday and the unity of this West African nation.