Celebrating Christmas in South Africa in the 1970s! What was wrong with this picture? It was November and it was getting warmer! It felt like June in Canada.
I understood that the seasons were opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, but to live it was a different sensation. I am very adaptable – I am, but my first summer Christmas in South Africa was a disaster!
I had excuses… Wrapping my head around Christmas in December being high summer was a challenge! The gardens were at their peak and the lawns were green. My flowers were happy!
We wore shorts and sandals; but why would I do this in what-should-be winter?
I was very confused.
We cleaned the garden furniture and barbeque. Up went the umbrellas and we were ready.
It was warm – I felt the heat, and December 25th was only weeks away. I found it hard to be in a Yuletide mood.
It was like a trick question to see Santa wear a red
woolen suit in this heat.
All that long hair… and that beard! … It’s too hot for that nonsense.
Christmas trees on cards, and everywhere, had snow around them! You wouldn’t wear a woolen suit in the tropics. That’s how I grew up.
Summer in December…as if! (Link: my first impressions in a new country!)
I Tried A Jungle-lia Theme!
To bridge our cultural divides I attacked the time-honored Christmas tree and added a “Jungle-lia” theme to it. This was my interpretation of Christmas in the tropics… sans evergreen trees, and no woolen suits!
I was going to teach them how we did it our way!
Instead of the evergreen, I opted for a bush, with white, 5-inch thorns, common in the area… What could go wrong?
I cut branches with long-handled clippers and wore thick, padded gloves. My arms were scratched and the cutting had to stop… there was blood.
I stood the branches in a bucket of sand… it was kind of wobbly.
We hung green and red balls on the thorns, but it was too risky to add lights or an angel topper.
It was too late to start hunting for a real Christmas tree!
The finished product was the type that Peanuts would produce.
Charlie Brown’s tree was sparse and could blow over in a breeze. The decorations were handmade and clumsy.
We all knew that Charlie Brown was sincere and a Christmas tree was his outreach to people. We had a soft spot for this little guy.
I was counting on my pitiful, poorly decorated, 5-inch thorn bush to elicit Charlie Brown admiration.
I would start a new trend… Not!
These were forgiving people – but they admired my tree from afar. What a joke, but at the time I could not see it.
When I look back at it now – well, I feel a little worse than I did then.
No one in their right mind would allow a child to go near it. Forget hiding their gifts under 5-inch thorns sticking out everywhere!
That could take a person’s eye out!
Parents shouted, “Stay away from that tree” and the children looked confused.
This was not kid-friendly.
At this time, most people bought an evergreen tree at the nursery and left it potted. They decorated it for Christmas and watered it regularly.
After the festivities, they planted the tree in a park or a forest.
Too bad this information was not in my welcome package…
I could have used it.
What To Eat…
When Celebrating Christmas In South Africa In The 1970s!
… I was woefully unprepared to throw a gathering as only they could do. The whole family got involved and they made it look so easy – no muss, no fuss.
Everyone had a dining area in their homes; people ate together until TV made its debut in 1976. On rainy, winter evenings a dining room is useful, but no one would eat inside on a beautiful day.
The braai takes over all other forms of entertainment. People eat outdoors or in screened-in areas. They do weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and Baptisms around the braai… Just a fact.
A braai is a barbecue, and it comes up often in conversation.
So, I assessed that’s what we should do.
Can’t go wrong… we were swimming and barefoot anyway.
– – I Never Saw A Turkey!
I had to prepare a menu, but the food was very traditional and hard to pronounce.
It seemed less regimented and people could have any kind of Christmas dinner.
There were no triggers to point me in the right direction.
Christmas turkeys were not in grocery stores; I didn’t know what to look for.
What we did have was the fatted calf; people arranged with a local farmer to provide for that special occasion dinner. In this country, that meant a big family braai!
When It Rains It Hails!
My Mom and her BFF Ernestine announced they would visit South Africa for Christmas 1984.
It was exciting news and I had some months to get ready for them; I wanted everything to sparkle! By October, as expected, the weather was very warm and dry.
One Saturday, 8 weeks before Mom’s arrival, our local weather station sent out a warning, that “there is the possibility of hail”… Oh good, we’ll get some rain, I thought.
I had told Semmer, my weekend-student-garden-helper, to pack things up early because we had a storm coming – the wind increased and the sky was threatening. (Semmer’s name was September, yes, born in that month… his friends called him Semmer).
By 2 o’clock we had a hail storm… Not just any storm – it was the grande dame of ice balls.
Years earlier, I heard hail described as “big as a half-brick”. Oh sure, that’ll never happen…(Link: SA weather authority)
Before we could start the battin’-down process the heavens opened and hail, the size of half-bricks – which do not exist – demolished my garden in less than
It sounded like a freight train inside the house – it was terrifying!
If Semmer had left early he would have been on the news. There was footage of people caught in the storm and scrambling under cars to escape the pelting of these 4-inch rocks!
When it was over, new cars, with broken windows and crunched metal could be picked up at the car lots for next to nothing. Now that’s a silver lining for someone!
Minutes after the rain stopped, Semmer was sweeping hailstones in the courtyard; they looked like baseballs. My hibiscus and palms lay shredded on the ground in mounds.
The flowers were smashed.
The storm continued west and the sun started to appear, on my garden – destroyed – and needing to be a showpiece in 56 days!
The clean-up was ongoing for days and I felt very little encouragement as the neighbors said, “It’ll take some time to grow back – be patient”… I felt sick.
Here’s the thing: “Take some time” to them meant weeks and days. I thought it meant months and years! … Because I never had a tropical garden before.
On the ridges and hills, you could distinctly see the path of the storm – it looked like a plague of locusts had decimated the countryside. I was so unhappy for the first week.
Within 14 days there was a green haze over the hills and the transformation was exponential. Where was my faith? Around here everything grew.
Celebrating Christmas in South Africa With Mom!
Never had I prepared a meal for such a prestigious occasion for my family. I didn’t pretend to be a good cook, but I was determined to make a stab at it.
Mom and Ernestine are both French-Canadian. It qualifies you to try everything – we’re known for it. Why else would anyone eat frog legs?
Our Christmas dinner consisted of a leg of lamb done on the braai with vegetables, rice, and the rest.
It didn’t matter what food you prepared, you just needed lots of it. Our dessert was a peach trifle – a masterpiece!
We all love a challenge: I told them there were coins in the trifle and if we found most of them, we would go to Kruger National Park in January. (KNP)
We ate slowly… searching for money.
Mom and Ernestine had never eaten lamb or trifle before but in true
French-Canadian style, they forged ahead. I was so proud of them!
Celebrating Christmas in South Africa, for me, was like nowhere else.
You have to wear a paper hat and “pull crackers” with the person seated next to you. Then you argue over who should keep the prize.
“Woo-hoo” we shout, and everyone kisses everyone!
South Africans are very kissy people! This was followed by a feeding frenzy.
It seems a little perfected but Christmas, summer, and school holidays, are all at the same time! Every day was like a vacation. This worked for me.
Within 500 km there were possibly 5 game reserves, but none as large as Kruger National Park. (7,500 sq. mi: 200 miles north to south and 25 to 50 miles east to west – the largest game reserve in South Africa.)
In the new year, we descended on KNP late in the day and were led to our rondoval – the African word for their “little round hut”.
In African homes, the rondoval floors are black and polished and shiny and made from fresh cow dung!
Yes, uh-huh! … While the dung is still warm, it is gathered and spread, by hand into a flat and smooth surface – it’s organic.
When the floor dries, it is odor-free, shiny, smooth, and easy to care for.
They don’t need linoleum.
Our hut was spacious: there was a real floor, electricity, three beds, a bathroom, and a sitting area… in the middle of the jungle!
There was an air-conditioner hanging in a window in each unit – but you would have been scorned if you dared use it and split the silence.
None were in working order anyway!
I was surprised country music singers hadn’t jumped all over that one.
I drifted off and was startled awake because an ant had crawled onto Ernestine’s bed. She was pommeling the insect with her book. “He was as big as my head!” she cried.
I really hoped she would not see a baboon-spider!
These ladies missed out on nothing.
They saw the magnificent LaLucia coast of
pristine white beaches.
We crawled through the slow roads of the Independent Homeland of The Transkei. Transkeians prize their livestock and they’re allowed to roam freely on the highways.
We reduced speed while we watched for cattle on the road. Crawling along like this, we had time to appreciate the view… Then we stopped in Umtata!
Nelson Mandela was born in the area and, today there are monuments for him everywhere.
My friend, Betty was born in Umtata too, before Nelson – this makes for good party conversation.
They say “white guys can’t dance”, but Betty could dance!
I called it her Umtata-influence.
Admit it: everyone wants to know someone who was born in Umtata. –ha-ha-ha-ha-ha– No one will know where that is unless you tell them.
There is no official sign for the “middle of nowhere” (MON) and before Mandella, Umtata could have had that distinction. Since Nelson, we’ll have to find another MON.
Late in the day, we limped into Cape Town. We were tired, but the sea air was fresh and breezy. No humidity here; it had nowhere to land as this is a very windy coast!
There is a phenomenon in some corridors around the Cape that is glaringly obvious: the trees are growing sideways!
The wind is strong and consistent…
The trees have no other choice.
These two ladies had enough of this wind. Mom said, “Someone should do something about this”… It was unnerving and their hair was getting mussed!
I convinced them that we could not leave Cape Town without standing on Table Mountain. (And guess what Mom? The white cloud covering it is called a “tablecloth”; you want to see it… don’t you Mom?)
I know what you’re thinking… but while you are allowed to climb to the top of the mountain, you need a guide.
Without one, if you break a leg while climbing, you might be responsible for paying for your rescue operations. Rescue might include a helicopter lift, sherpa, and/or medical treatment on the slope.
They take a dim view of bravado and inexperience. If you have a guide and this happens, at least you took the necessary precautions.
For us, the Table Mountain experience had only one way up – by cable car. “Oh wow, this will be fun – you can’t come this far and not do it!”
By the time it was our turn, we’d been lined up for two hours.
The waiting area was protected from the sun and had bench seats to rest on.
Finally … we were herded onto the cable car: it was windy and we swung in the breeze. I hoped this was not a problem; the cable looked a bit loose.
Everything groaned and we held our breath and faced the mountain – I watched the wild sheep grazing on the slope. Mom had her face in her hand, with her eyes closed! Ernestine concentrated on looking at the floor.
My stomach felt queasy,
The summit of Table Mountain is about 1.2 square miles.
There was a kiosk with souvenirs, bathrooms, and snacks at one end.
It was a shelter in the wind.
From this high in the sky there are panoramic views of Cape Town and Signal Hill. Look south to see the Indian Ocean; look north to see the wine fields in the distance.
At 3,567 ft, UP, it was flat and windy! The ladies mosied back to the kiosk. After that two-hour wait, they lasted five minutes. I admired their fortitude; they could not tolerate this wind!
South Africa does not encase you in bubble wrap. Although the perimeter of the summit is a sheer drop by about a thousand feet, there are few guard rails. Common sense tells you to stay away from the edge!
We witnessed a 10-year-old boy jumping around and hovering over the rim—we all inhaled! The parents were unconcerned – they saw no danger; like the Flying Wallendas are we?
We turned and sidled away; we couldn’t watch this kid plunge to the bottom of the mountain. We needed a rest, and he needed to stay away from the edge!
This was a way of life like no other, but this could never feel like the Christmases I remembered. Conversely, it felt like a very nice and warm vacation-like celebration.
For me, one advantage of celebrating Christmas in South Africa was that they did not have the gift-giving frenzy that we experienced in the West.
We exchanged ONE gift per person and it was not necessarily expensive. No small cars or fishing boats under the tree. Rather it was a good book, theatre tickets, or a dishwasher… nothing too fancy!
After being away for 17 years, I revisited South Africa in 2010 and the rural landscape looked the same as it has for 100 years. That makes me glad. The cities have grown.
And the stadiums! The 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer tournament was in South Africa!
New arenas and stadiums were built in the major cities where the competitions took place.
I could not believe the transformation!
The highways grew with the population and they were careful to respect tribal homelands.
It was still a beautiful country and I was proud to say that I lived there for 20 years.
There was no shortage of professionals in the workplace. With lofty education standards, the level of medicine, science, and architecture is high. South Africa can compete on the world stage and now they’re better represented than ever.
After Mom left, I remembered she sent me a Christmas package for the first three years I was away. Mom made Christmas fruit cake and I love fruit cake.
She baked two different loaves in August; they were wrapped and cured for 3 months. She mailed them, and they arrived precisely the week before Christmas.
Because her cakes were cured with a certain red wine, Mom was so careful not to mention this on the phone – ok, only in a whisper.She didn’t want Canada Post to know she was transporting alcohol! … My Mom was a true Canadian.
My cake was in the mail! That poignant gesture made every Christmas so special for me.
That is the best way to end this post.
Next time I will tell you my experience of learning to drive on the wrong side of the road!
You had to be there!
Before you go..o..o, please tell me:
Have you lived in another country?
Have you had to adjust to a new language, customs, and driving conditions?
And did you ever live in South Africa?
And South Africans, who moved West – what was that adjustment like for you?
I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment in the box below and I will get back to you within 24 hours!
Regards, Corinne :-)))