Magic, mayhem and grass-heads at Christmas

Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties were always magical. I remember going to them when I was a child on holiday in Cape Town – way before the rindepest – and we took our boys to them when they were small.

It was an annual event that marked the beginning of Christmas festivities for us. We usually went early in December, and we always went with our dearest friends whose children were the same ages as ours. The weather was always good, the children always had fun and the enchantment of Christmas sparkled and shone under a royal blue, twinkling Cape Town sky.

Organised by local service clubs, Uncle Paul’s Christmas party is a not only a Cape Town institution but a significant fundraising event for local, deserving charities. With tickets almost as difficult to come by as Wimbledon Centre Court tickets, we’d have to book our berths early in the year, and wait in eager anticipation for the tickets to arrive, along with detailed instructions and our allocated date.

We’d arrive at the beautiful wine farm, show our tickets to the volunteers at the gate, and my husband would have to get out and hand over the carefully disguised swag from the boot of our car: a disposable container of food to contribute to the communal supper, a gift for an under-privileged child and a black bin-bag containing a gift (at a specified maximum price), labelled and chosen specially for each of our children. Our boys would keep their eyes focused ahead – they could barely contain their excitement.

We’d park our car, catch up with our friends, and join the queue for the tractor ride. Sitting on bales of hay in a trailer pulled behind a tractor, we would travel up to the bespoke castle at the top of the hill. Seating (for the adults) was arranged around a central, hay-filled area that faced the castle. We would find a place to sit and the children would jump into the hay, and begin their feast of hay-fights.

We were back-row parents. My friend and I would sit close to each other and catch up on the news and chat about everything we could think of. Our husbands would sit next to each other, share a few words here and there and laugh like drains. Such is the nature of our relationships. There was always plenty of laughter.

As soon as everyone had arrived at the castle, Noddy, Big Ears and Mr Plod would arrive and try and create order in the midst of the hayfights. This was always hilarious and over-the-top for the children, and they would try and bury the characters under the hay. The manic playtime would end with the welcome arrival of ice-creams for each child.

A marching band usually arrived after ice-creams, and the children would follow them as they marched this way and that. They would stop and play a few familiar tunes, and encourage participation from the children. By now, the light was starting to fade, and the communal supper would be passed around for all to share.

It was at this point that the Christmas carols would begin. And the laughter – from our quarter – became increasingly hysterical as our friend did his Elvis impersonation to each carol. He would sometimes liven up the songs with some hand-clapping or occasionally go reggae on us. It was hard to stay focused, but at least the children were sitting quietly in front of the band, singing as they should!

Usually the last carol to be sung was “Silent Night”, and it was at this point that the Christmas fairy would arrive. She was beautiful. She had a wand, and she would weave her magic as she lightly touched the tree and turned on the Christmas lights. The children would help with shouts of encouragement, and requisite oohs and aahs. As she was getting ready to light the star at the top of the tree, the children would be encouraged to be quiet as mice and listen; if they listened very carefully they could hear the sleigh bells in the distance. They came closer and closer, and the excitement and anticipation became almost too much to bear.

The fairy would light the star at the top of the tree and, as all little eyes were on her, Father Christmas would “land” on top of the castle. He would make his presence known, the children would look over at him and would screech and whoop and clap and jump around in excitement.

Father Christmas would come down from the top of the castle, sack on his back, and would dig into the sack to take out presents for each of the children. They would be called up in turn and, with shyness and wild excitement, the children would go up, look longingly into the eyes of this jolly man dressed in red, and receive their gifts. Paper was torn and tossed this way and that and the gifts were received with shrieks of joy.

Children would run around flashing their light sabres, wearing their neon head bands and bangles, playing with their action figures or rugby balls or toy drums (heaven help us) or toy cars and dolls. Sound effects rang through the air along with shrieks and laughter and vocal happiness.

One year, my friend had a great idea for gifts for all four of our little ones. She described them to me, and, encouraged by her enthusiasm, I agreed and went along with her. She bought the four items, wrapped them and surreptitiously passed two of them to me ahead of the Christmas party.

That was the year that all the children shrieked and laughed and showed off their gifts for all to see. Except our four children. Each of them took one look at their grass-head and came and sat quietly alongside us and watched longingly as the other children ran around and played with their cool toys. (The grass-head was a toy made out of an old stocking, filled with sand and grass seeds. The idea was that you put the grass-head on a jar filled with water, with its knotted bottom half dangling in the water. In time, the seeds would germinate and grass would begin to grow through the top of the stocking, creating a kind of long buzz cut: meet Mr Grass-head! It would be about six weeks before any “hair” appeared.)

My friend and I cast knowing looks at each other – what were we thinking? Our husbands looked at us less graciously, with expressions of WTF (why the funny-toy?), and our children sat there trying not to look ungrateful but so wishing they had cooler toys. What was Father Christmas thinking that year?

Fortunately “he” redeemed himself the next year with cool toys, and the children have long since forgiven us. It never detracted from the magic of Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties, but added a new dimension to our shared memories of those days.

Our four children still cannot figure out what we were thinking that year. I do wonder, myself, my dear dear friend: what were you we thinking?

Sunshine signing off for today!


24 thoughts on “Magic, mayhem and grass-heads at Christmas

  1. In our comfortable home with our comfortable income we sometimes don’t realize that our charity can belittle the very people we are trying to help. You story illustrates the point very well. I see the same thing at Thanksgiving here in the USA. Every community(churches, schools, employers, etc.) collect huge baskets of food for distribution to needy families. But when you look at the packages, so much is canned goods that is old and unwanted stuff and how would one make a dinner out of 50 cans of different things? We forget that the poor and underprivileged care to retain some dignity and in our innocence can be insensitive when we make charitable gifts to people who’s lives are so fragile . It certainly is horrible to be poor in a poor country, but to be poor in a rich country does much to demoralize people when there is so much wealth. A child may be thankful to receive a $12 pair of shoes he desperately needs but is ashamed to wear them amidst his peers with their $135 shoes.

  2. You’ll be pleased to know that grassheads are still around and going strong; I recently had to buy 500 of the things for a promotion for a client.

  3. Hi Sunshine:

    I had to Google “rindepest.”

    Your Christmas party sounds like fun…loved the “grass head” story…somebody over here has made millions of dollars selling them…they’re called “Chia Pets.” I’d give anything to see my kids’ faces if I’d ever given them a “grass head”!


    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Kathy! No, we’d hoped to go home for Christmas, but it just didn’t work out that way. Ahhh … I SO wish we could be there, but it looks like we’ll have a white Christmas instead.
      Hope you are able to get home. xx

  4. I think GRASS HEADS are super awesome!!! And they probably lasted so much longer than all the other gifts?!?!?! Enjoyed your post. I wish we had done things like that growing up…. will need to start our own traditions.

    1. True, mnb. But I think they were more awesome for the mums than for the children, who were all under eight!
      Traditions and rituals are just wonderful – they certainly bind families together in the most special way xx

  5. As a parent, I understand why you’d think a grass-head would be a cool present. As a former kid, though, I understand why your children didn’t share your enthusiasm!

  6. Was wondering why I’d never heard about Uncle Paul’s Christmas parties (I grew up in Cape Town), but then I remembered we always went away for the whole of December. My mother (who to this day still loves traditional European Christmases) used to take all her Christmas decorations and goodies with her, and set it up wherever we were. One year we were camping in the middle of nowhere in Namibia, with our tent decorated and candles and special German Christmas treats.

    1. Wow, that sounds fabulous, Lisa! Family traditions are so special and important. I had a German friend at university, who always used to share lebkuchen (not sure if that’s how you spell it) with us in December – I remember how delicious they were, but also what they meant to her.

  7. When I saw the words “Grass Heads” in your post title, I wasn’t exactly thinking of a sock-doll–and when you started to talk about raggae, I REALLY thought I knew where the story was going. You had me fooled.

    From an adult perspective, I think the grass-heads were a great idea. Plus, the whole event sounds like a truly great tradition.

  8. Like 36X37, I was going in a completely different direction with the “grass head” thing (must be the remnants of my hydrocodone event). That aside, Uncle Paul’s Christmas sounds like a lovely tradition.

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