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!