As my blog readers already know, I grew up in Africa. Our holiday season was not cold; it was hot and sticky.
In the southern hemisphere, summer begins in December, but I always thought it really began in October with unrelenting, sweltering sunshine; rain relief arriving only in November.
To the Beach
Often, Christmas for our family was beach time. We’d pack the car with padkos (road food) that our Afrikaner grandmother, Ouma, insisted on for even the shortest of trips. She would sit in the backseat with us kids, doling out sandwiches and boiled eggs as soon as we got underway. Our suitcases strapped down on the roof of our old Ford Consul, the suspension slung dangerously low, we’d head for Beira, our nearest port town on the east African coast, as Dad complained all the way. It was usually about how much we’d over packed, but it also could have been that us kids needed to pee about every five minutes, or world war three would erupt in the back seat, and he’d try to slap us—whoever was within reach—with one hand and drive at the same time. (Those days, corporal punishment was a socially acceptable thing).
Once, this resulted in his going off the road and hitting a small tree. No injuries occurred, except to the tree.
A Christmas Menu
Christmas was also BBQ (what we called a “Braai”) weather. Steaks, boerewors (Afrikaner sausage) sizzling on the grill, served with sadza and gravy, an African staple that resembles grits.
Since turkeys were unavailable where I grew up, it was not an option for dinner. Our holiday feast, when not braaing, was a chicken surrounded by potatoes, roasted crisply golden . We’d make salads, if we could find them, or just serve vegetables in whatever form we could get, which during the bush years, were a luxury since ‘salads’ were only obtainable in towns. Canned or frozen vegetables were our nod to greenery, so the chicken and potatoes (or rice) had center stage, often accompanied by limp green beans.
Perhaps a beef roast, maybe a leg of lamb—all were possible Christmas day menus. Mince pies were common, and something—I am not sure of the name, a steamed dried fruit cake that our mothers would spend days preparing. This Christmas pudding, drenched in a brandy sauce, was always the star of the show. Pennies, or small silver tickies (threepence), about the size of a dime, would be hidden in the batter (after sterilizing them, of course) and baked into the pudding. We had to eat it very carefully, but imagine our joy as teeth met metal, and we were a penny or a tickie richer!
Our Christmas fare was inspired by our Colonial past. The British introduced mince pies, a mix of dried fruit in a pastry, Christmas puddings, and something else we called “crackers”. A cracker was not the tasteless American wafer served with soup that are called crackers here, but rather something made of crepe paper with a little noise maker inside. Like a chicken wishbone, we’d pull them apart with a satisfying bang! as a tiny gift tumbled out. We’d all scramble for the cheap, plastic object and the crepe paper crowns that accompanied the gift, which would subsequently be placed on our heads. The crown or hat, not the gift!
Crepe paper was a Christmas essential in Africa. Not only did it play a huge part in our festivities, but our houses were also decorated in a rainbow array of crepe. We’d often make the decorations ourselves by twisting strips of colorful crepe and stringing them across the ceiling or doorways.
Our tree was a mopani bush my father cut down, decorated with fake snow (cotton balls), popcorn strings, and, of course, the inevitable crepe paper.
Christmas Eve, when we lived in a town, would be a night of “Carols by Candlelight”, a festivity hosted in our town’s Civic Center.
Another British import which is not celebrated in the USA, is “Boxing Day”. This is the day after Christmas, when traditionally in Britain, servants would be given the day off and gifted, thus the “boxing” or opening of boxed presents.
I think of those years with great fondness, and realized that even though we were poor, and our gifts were extremely modest, we looked forward to Christmas with great excitement and joy. It was not the gifts as much as the feeling we had, knowing this was a special day.
MAY YOUR DAY BE SPECIAL, TOO, AND FILLED WITH BLESSINGS. I WISH EVERYONE A VERY HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON