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!



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!