My African Christmas

Today is both the shortest and the longest day of the year, depending on which side of the equator you call home. While I am falling in love with the snow and the wintry charm of short days in London, I try to imagine South African sunshine lasting into long, balmy evenings. Please take up your gingerbread latte or chilled white wine, and join me on a journey through our Saffa Christmas.

My husband and I were both born in Zimbabwe; he to Scottish parents and me to South African parents. His family’s Celtic Christmas in Africa was always festive and loud, with lashings of alcohol, sword-dancing and tearful renditions of “My Ain Folk”. Ours usually involved a journey from Zambia or Zimbabwe to my parents’ home town of Cape Town, and loads of cousins and relatives and beaches and food. Together, we developed a Christmas tradition that merged the best of what we both knew and loved: booze and beaches. Not exclusively. Walk with me…

In our early married years, we would use every free moment, every spare dollar, to go and see a movie. Christmas Eve was the perfect opportunity to do just that, so that is something that we have done almost every year since we got married: a Christmas Eve movie. We took a break when our boys were small but roped them in as soon as they were old enough to sit through and enjoy a movie. It doesn’t have to be a Christmas movie, a feel-good movie will do, so “Love, Actually”, “The Holiday” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have featured in our ritual on the night before Christmas.

Our drive home from the movie would always include a drive along Adderley Street – the high street through the centre of Cape Town – to see the Christmas lights (illuminations). These always incorporated nativity scenes alongside scenes of Africa. We would go home and sit by the decorated Christmas tree and, sometimes, sing Christmas carols together. We would all retire to bed, and – one by one – each of us would sneak back to the lounge to put Christmas gifts under the tree.

When our boys were small, we would put empty pillowcases at the ends of their beds, and Father Christmas would fill them during the night. Then he would have a mince pie and a cold drink (or a beer) that had been left for him next to the Christmas tree. He would usually leave a lovely letter for the boys too.

On Christmas morning, we would wake with the sparrows and launch into the excitement of wishing each other Merry Christmas and giving each other gifts. With paper and boxes all around, we would have coffee and mince pies for breakfast before either going to church, or preparing for the day ahead.

We always gathered together as family, and would alternate hosting the festivities at our various homes, although we always shared the catering. At our home, we made one long table that extended from one end of our dining room/lounge area to the wide-open French doors on to the swimming pool area on the other. The table would be set for around 20 people or more, depending on which brothers and sisters were in town. We would decorate the table with Christmas crackers and tinsel and bowls of nuts and chocolates along the length of the table. My sister-in-law made beautiful decorative little Christmas trees that would add creative charm to the table.

Everyone would arrive at around noon and share gifts with each other.  Some would have a cup of tea or coffee; others preferred cold drinks, wine or beer. Each person would add their contribution to the meal on to the sideboard, where the bowls of salads would line up under cover from the summer-time flies. Lunch would begin at around 2.30pm with the turkey and ham having been carved, and everyone helping themselves to the meat and salads. Yes, salads – the best thing for mid-summer!

With each person seated at the table, we would put on our paper hats from the Christmas crackers and open the bottles of champagne. With bubbles flowing freely, we would toast Christmas, each other and absent friends before beginning the meal. It was always loud, loads of laughter, the telling of lame Christmas-cracker jokes, the sharing of memories of Christmases gone by, more champagne and more and more and more food. Christmas pudding would make an appearance at the right time – usually flaming and filled with silver coins. I’m the only person in my family who likes Christmas pudding, but my boys always had some just for the coins!

After totally over-indulging at the table, we would all get up, find a comfy seat in which to settle and snooze, go out and laze on the lawn or a garden chair next to the pool, or go and find a bed to sleep off the meal for an hour or so. The afternoon usually flowed into an evening spent outdoors in the creeping, cooling darkness of the setting sun, splashes in the pool, cold drinks a-plenty and an endless supply of food if anyone had room for more.

Sometimes the teenagers of the family would head off to the beach for a while for a refreshing dip in the ocean. The beaches were always busy but always worth it to splash in the crashing, cooling waves of the beautiful Cape Town coastline.

At some stage, a number of us would gather in the kitchen to wash the dishes and put the food away, always accompanied by laughter and hilarity. The food would be shared out to go home again, although someone invariably ended up with lashings of turkey that would appear in various guises in meals for the next week or so! Noisy, laughter-filled farewells would take place in our driveway, as cars pulled away at the end of a perfect day.

Replete with food, love, family, laughter and sunshine, we would retire to our beds and snore before our heads hit the pillow. Although Christmas in Africa is slightly different from the northern hemisphere experience, the love, unique traditions, shared memories and joy at the significance of the celebration, transcend time and geography.

So on this winter solstice, my heart and my thoughts bask in the long day of Cape Town sun and my body shivers and freezes in the bitter cold short day of London. Technology keeps the two hemispheres together, the shrinking world makes contact with my precious family so easy, and I realise that straddling two worlds can be both tender and heartening. And I’m okay with that.

Sunshine signing off for today!



38 thoughts on “My African Christmas

  1. You describe the South African Christmas perfectly 🙂
    We’ve had the dustbin man and the post man ringing for their krismis box, do they do that there too?

    1. I thought it would sound familiar to you! It’s so different from here.
      I don’t know if they do that here – we’ve not encountered it last year or this. I laughed when I read your comment as I remember one year just before Christmas, we were all lounging by the pool and waiting for some friends to come over. Our doorbell went and I went to open the door for – as I thought – our friends, but it was the dustbin man asking for his Christmas box. I was wearing my bikini and I got SUCH a fright, I just shut the door in his face! Poor chap. I did send my husband to go and find him, and give him his gratuity, though! hahaha! xx

  2. It’s so interesting to hear about the differences in celebrations that go on all over the world.

    A cool dip in the ocean? Almost unfathomable to me after shoveling 6 inches of snow last night, and maybe for you in chilly London. But, the memories (and your name) keep you warm, right?

    Happy holidays to you and yours, Sunshine~

    1. Thanks, Amanda. Growing up in Africa, that’s all I knew and I’ve realised, since I’ve been here, just how different our celebrations are from the frozen north!
      Yes, I totally can’t imagine a dip in the ocean right now – my toes freeze numb under countless pairs of socks, so the thought of swimming is far from my mind!
      Happy holidays to you all too, Amanda, and keep warm xx

  3. Nice one Sunshine, I’ll have a rum / beer / chardonnay or perhaps all of the above for you and Ringo every evening under this African / Indian ocean sun until you can join us on this “Hot Rock” island.
    Lots of Love

  4. Thanks for sharing your beautiful Christmas traditions. I love the picture of the table extending from one room to another filled with family.

    The kitchen filled with laughter and hilarity sounds wonderful and so much like home for me.

    We spent one Christmas in El Salvador at the beach for the day. It wasn’t our usual Christmas tradition but I could learn to like Christmas by the ocean instead of surrounded by cold and snow.

    Happy holidays to you and your family Sunshine. My Christmas is truly warmer here in Minnesota for knowing you!

    1. Laughter in the kitchen is all part of the fun, isn’t it?
      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment – what a lovely thing to say. I’m so glad to have met you too, and wish you all happy holidays! xx

  5. Another wonderful telling of a holiday tradition. No matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter the circumstances of our lives, the best holiday traditions are simply opportunities to be with the people we love and to show them how much they mean to us.

    1. Thanks, Renee. And so true, I couldn’t have said it better myself! Traditions and rituals are what bind us together, and those are the most precious ties ever.
      Much love to you and yours xx

  6. Wonderful, Sunshine! It’s funny to picture Christmas in the summer. I love the idea of hitting the beach after all of that turkey and salad.

    I’m sure it’s not easy to be away from your loved ones this time of year. Hugs to you, friend.

    1. Thank you, Maura! It was fun to write this one as I know it’s so different from a wintry Christmas. Thanks for your hugs – well received, dear friend.
      We’re spending Christmas with dear friends from our university days, which is a fabulous alternative to being with our family! xx

  7. Beautiful post as always, Sunshine…except for the swimming, the salads and the spirits (the alcoholic kind!), it sounds a lot like our Christmas celebrations in North America! Oh, and the flaming Christmas pudding…burning food is usually a sign of something gone terribly wrong with the cooking process over here! LOL.


  8. It does sound stunning, but at the moment JHB is pouring with rain… has been constant, which has made me worry about Saturday’s celebration. Suddenly having 20 people all IN the house, with the two German Shephards, seems a challenge. I am sure you will have a neautiful Christmas- you can still see a movie and you can still have turkey and salad!!! It will be awesome.

  9. Thanks, Sunshine, for warming up our bitterly cold Christmas season with your beautiful memories! It just goes to show that even if we’re separated by oceans, we all have a lot in common — family, friends, good food, happy memories, and traditions. You’re making some new memories now, and I hope they, too, will be happy ones!

  10. Fantastic post! I always wondered how Christmas ‘worked’ at the other end of the globe. I grew up in the US in New England, and it was always cold, sometimes snowy, and though we went to church and talked about the true meaning of Christmas, we (as kids) always hoped there was enough snow for Santa to land the sleigh with no problems. All the Christmas marketing in stores revolved around snowflakes and cold weather and fireplaces, and to think of Christmas any other way seems foreign (and it is.)

    Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse into what Christmas is like elsewhere!

    1. Thanks so much, wittywife. The funny thing is – and I forgot to mention it in my post – that even from sunny SA we would still send out Christmas cards with pictures of snowmen, or Santa in the snow, or whatever! Funny, hey? There is such charm to a wintry Christmas, and yours sounds cosy and special.

  11. Good God ,woman! A movie on Christmas Eve? How will you give Santa a grilled cheese with bacon if you are not home? And corn flakes cereal for the rein deer and hot honey tea for the elves? I am astonished. PS I am going to see Tron, The legacy.

    1. Carl, you make me laugh! Santa was always happy with a mince pie and a cold drink or a beer – that didn’t take long to prepare! What took the time was taking dictation for his letter to our boys! 🙂
      Enjoy Tron – looks awesome.

  12. A movie sounds splendid! With all the family together, the kids have endless sitters so mommy and daddy can sneak out together 😉 My husband’s family hosts Christmas Eve at their place: food, drink, good company, music, then gift opening at midnight (or after dessert, which ever comes first) .
    My family typically celebrates on Christmas Day. When my brother and I were little, we were allowed to open ONE gift Christmas Eve just before bed. As if we could go to sleep with all that excitement brewing! I remember opting out of the early gift just to have more things to open Christmas morning. Brother and I would wake up to find our stockings full on the hearth next to the empty plate and glass of milk left for Santa. And, there was one big present marked “From Santa” to both of us. There were rules of course: we could only open what Santa left for us before breakfast. Breakfast was probably more likely brunch, waffles or french toast, ham, eggs and potatoes. Grandma was usually there with us, sometimes an aunt/uncle/cousin made it through the deep snow to our farm.
    This year, Big Brother who is 5, understands the Santa concept – I hope it will be as majical and fun as it once was for me 🙂
    ~Sending you some warm Texas sunshine!~Merry Christmas!~

    1. Thank you for the warm Texas sunshine – much appreciated! Your Christmas traditions sound special and warm, and it looks like you will continue them with your family. So wonderful, really.
      Merry Christmas to you too.

  13. What a delightful post! I love hearing about Christmas in South Africa. And, honestly, having never lived south of the equator, I hadn’t thought about this being the longest day of the year there–though obviously it would be! And how true that technology brings these two halves of the world so much closer these days. Last Christmas Sara and I were on the beach in Vietnam but able to Skype with our families back in the US, where it was a full 12 hours earlier–Christmas Eve. Thanks for sharing these memories!
    Happy Holidays to you from the US,

  14. While we were all “dreaming of a white Christmas” and drinking hot chocolate, you were in South Africa on a balmy summer day with beaches and salads. What a great post, Sunshine! Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas filled with new winter traditions!

    1. Thank you so much – it’s so interesting that we experience Christmas so differently, isn’t it? At least we share a common reason to celebrate. We’re looking forward to a white Christmas.
      Wishing you and yours Merry Christmas too, over there in Brooklyn! xx

  15. I forgot about it being the longest day here yesterday. It was certainly one of the warmest days we have had this December.

    I hope that you’ll write a post about how you did end up spending Christmas this year. Which means you’ll have to go out and do something interesting for us all to read about! 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s