Christmas in Zimbabwe. In village or city, women spend day cooking and men relax in celebration of holiday brought by Europeans

Christmas is coming to Ruwa, a tiny village in Zimbabwe, at a measured pace. The day before Christmas, Elias, one of the village elders, can be found sitting on his veranda, surrounded by a group of small boys. The women, upon whom the burden of holiday preparations falls, have carefully planned but not yet begun to cook the Christmas-day meal.

The summer sun beats down upon the scattered thatched huts and brick houses of this African village. Squawking chickens appear to be the only creatures moving about in the midday heat.

Christmas here is a legacy left by the Europeans, but it is one Zimbabweans have embraced wholeheartedly, whether as a religious celebration or simply as a festive holiday.

Following British tradition, both Christmas itself and Boxing Day (Dec. 26) are national holidays. In villages where the missionary influence is strong, the day may begin with a religious service. But in many villages, like Ruwa, the day is devoted to merrymaking.

Elias, a member of the Shona tribe, is not religious. His day will be spent with other men, eating and drinking a special holiday beer brewed by his wife. She will spend her day, as she spends most days, cooking for the men. For Christmas, however, she will have additional chores: cows and chickens must be prepared for the holiday feast, the brew must be watched over, and there will be more cooking than usual.

The children are excited about Christmas. In much of Africa, the holiday coincides with the beginning of the five-week summer vacation from school. Elias's sons will spend Christmas day playing, drinking soft drinks, and debating what to do with the money their father intends to give them.

Back in the capital of Harare stores are filled with signs of the arrival of Christmas. Lights in the form of singing angels and flame lilies hang above the bustling streets as shoppers scurry by. The main roads out of the city have been busy since last weekend as city people return to their villages for the holiday.

Harare's Mbare bus station is a most colorful place this time of year. Long lines await every bus. Travelers are laden with treats - special foods, trinkets, chairs, and even beds - to take home.

One woman in a bright yellow and blue dress mills about stretching her legs; a baby is strapped to her back by a midriff-hugging red cloth. Atop her head, around which she has wrapped a turquoise bandana, sits a box of food.

Many people arrive at the bus station early and sleep in line to ensure themselves a seat.

Not everyone is returning to his or her village. Two drivers unload a bus that has just arrived. Down comes a mattress, several small chairs and crates, and a goat, all headed for someone's house in the city.

Bettinah Mambo and her husband live and work in Harare. This year their family is coming to visit them. With its nine inhabitants, Bettinah's house is a place full of activity. For Christmas, she will be feeding about 30 people. ``At least there will be someone to help with the cooking,'' she says with a laugh.

``In our society, the women do all the work,'' she notes.

Bettinah and her family will not be brewing the potent beer which is a hallmark of many village festivities. They are Seventh-day Adventists and do not drink alcohol. Instead, she uses a gourd to make a beverage which tastes a little bit like root beer.

Her kitchen is a long way from those in Ruwa, where women sit on the floor and stir the meat and a corn meal called sadza, cooking in three-legged iron pots over open fires.

But reason for the celebration and traditions is the same, says Bettinah. ``It is a time for people to be happy, to be with other people, and have a good time.''

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