Nigeria is a multicultural society, although it is dominated by two of the world’s major religions. About half of the population is Muslim, with about 40 percent of Nigerians following Christianity. Followers of the religions live side by side in Nigeria, and traditional Islamic and Christian festivals are celebrated throughout the country, although it is at these times where you will observe the division more. Christmas and Easter festivals are celebrated widely, with a distinct West African flavor, and most of the Christians live in the south. The main Muslim festivals are Eid al Fitri, Eid al Maulud and Eid al Kabir, which are recognized as national holidays. The remaining 10 percent of the population have traditional indigenous beliefs, and festivals which convey the unique Nigerian traditional way of life are celebrated, such as the Osun festival, an important event for the Yoruba tribe.
Eid al Maulud
Held in February, this is the first major Muslim festival celebrated of the year in Nigeria. It is known as ‘Mawlid’ in other Islamic holidays, and means ‘birth of the Prophet’, celebrating the birth of Mohammed in 570 AD. This day is honored with a national public holiday; you will see it observed slightly differently depending on which region of the country you are in.
Argungu Fishing Festival
This is an annual four-day fishing festival that has been held in the northwestern state of Kebbi since 1934. It is held at the beginning of March, and thousands of fishermen come to compete to catch the largest fish on the Sokoto River using only traditional handmade nets.
Easter is one of two most important festivals for Christians around the world. In Nigeria it is commemorated with an official public holiday. Good Friday is a more somber day, where many people will go to pay their respects at a local church. Easter Sunday is an upbeat event, since it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, and people take to the streets wearing traditional colorful costumes, dancing to the pulsating beat of African drums.
This festival is held towards the rainy season, usually last week of August. It is a traditional tribal festival from the Yoruba people, held to honor the river goddess Oshun. Thousands of people attend to bear witness to the ceremonies, which include priests seeking protection for the villagers for the year to come by offering gifts and sacrifices. The festival is held at the Oshogbo Sacred Forest.
Eid al Fitri
Occurring in August or September, according to the Islamic calendar for the year, the festival of Eid al Fitri is celebrated on the last day of Ramadan, the end of a month-long period of daylight fasting for Muslims. You may hear it being called ‘Small Saleh’ in Nigeria, and on this day Muslims head home to feast with their families, breaking the fast. This is followed by a two-day national public holiday.
Eid al Kabir
This Muslim festival is known as Eid al-Adha in other countries, which translates into ‘festival of sacrifice’. It occurs around late October, varying according to the Islamic calendar, on the last day of the Hajj (the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). In Nigeria you will see this festival being celebrated in the countryside as Durbar festivals. Here the villagers come out in traditional bright colored West African costume, and congregate in parades and horsemanship competitions throughout the day. The northern states, such as Kano, are known to have the best displays.
This is a fairly new addition to the annual festival calendar of Nigeria, since it first commenced in 2006, although is held annually and is dubbed “Nigeria’s largest street party.” It is a month-long carnival from December 1 to 31 every year, and has a program of events including dancing, music, and other cultural events; something different every day.
Christmas is held on December 25 each year, and is an important festival for Christians since it celebrates the birth of Jesus. Celebrations in Nigeria have a unique twist in the southern region of Igboland, where festivities involve masquerade dancing, known as “Mmo.” These festivities predate Christianity, and traditionally honor Nigerian ancestors.