Summertime Christmas in Africa
When people think of Christmas, they think of snow, father Christmas or Santa Claus, Pine trees and funky Christmas sweaters. We also think about the birth of Jesus and the whole reason for the season. What many people don’t realise is that people on the other half of the planet celebrate Christmas during Summer!
I was one of these people. I was born and raised in South Africa where it’s Summer in December and Winter in July. Our school year started in January and ended the following December. I found it very strange to arrive in Italy as an adult to see that the other half of the world works very differently, but that’s for another blog post. Today I will focus on my Summertime Christmases in Africa.
I don’t have any personal photos to post here today, my old photo albums are back in Italy at my parents’ house. Once I have the albums, in the new year, I’ll scan some pictures and add them in. I hope my writing will be enough to spark your imagination in the meantime, so you can get a feel for what Christmas in Africa was like for me.
Our television was full of Christmas movies made in Hollywood, showing the typical white Christmas and big families wearing matching Christmas jumpers and eating turkey. It was normal to see, although we would never experience something like that in Africa ourselves, that was the “American Christmas” to me. I always hoped, though, that one day I too would experience such a magical thing as a white Christmas!
I have great memories of Christmas holidays, playing outside with all the cousins that had come down to the coast where my grandparents lived. My Oupa had designed and built his own house on the East Coast of South Africa and all the children and grandchildren would flock down there for the holiday.
Most of us lived within a 2 hour drive from them, that is nothing according to European standards, I used to bus 2 hours to church and then 3 hours back during rush hour on Sundays in London and at one point, while living in Italy, I travelled 2 hours to work and back each day. But back when I was a child in Africa, 2 hours was the distance we travelled for a weekend away.
So Christmas holiday was quite an adventure, starting with the road trip and ending in my grandparents’ house! The area they lived in was not developed yet, so there were many plots of open land around their house – lots of “veld” to explore! There was a lovely flower garden in the front with a stone pathway and a beautiful sea view, and out back there was my grandfather’s double garage full of exciting and mysterious “antique” items that would inspire our imaginative games and a gorgeous walk-in aviary with the loveliest selection of birds!
For the longest time there was also a mountain of stones and sand, leftover from the construction, and we had so much fun playing on them. The yard was big enough for family rugby and cricket matches, games of catch and frisbee and even riding our bikes!
Our family always celebrated on Christmas Eve. There would be about 20 of us at my gran’s house for Christmas, many of us sleeping over on mattresses all over the floors, like a big pyjama party! Many of us would be there for the day as we had travelled down to the coast and slept over at “Ouma and Oupa’s house”, everybody else who couldn’t get there earlier would arrive in the evening for dinner and gift giving.
The meals were always amazing roasts with potatoes, rice and gravy, a selection of vegetables, salads and desserts, usually the huge feast would be set out on my Ouma’s enormous dining room table and people would just grab a plate and walk around the table to help themselves to whatever they wanted. A very casual and fun atmosphere. There would be the coffee table set up to the side where us little ones would just congregate and eat our meals at. Everybody just finds a spot and digs in after a prayer has been said together.
I remember our family sitting in the huge living room, the ladies on the sofas along the walls and then everybody else, usually all the cousins and some of the uncles, would be strewn all over the carpet with cushions, the tree and our designated Santa for the night would be the centre of attention. Usually the oldest male would be Father Christmas and the youngest little one in the family would act as his helper to deliver the gifts (and collect all the thank yous, hugs and kisses of course!).
There would be so much fun and laughter throughout, my family are quite a funny bunch, some gifts would be serious, personal and meaningful and others would just make us belly laugh. My grandfather and a couple of uncles were good at playing tricks on people. They loved making people laugh.
One of my favourite parts was when they would pass around this little set of Bible verse cards, we would each take one out of the box and once everybody had taken their card, we would go around the room and each person would read their verse out loud and we would all just take a moment to take it in. My next favourite part was the singing!
My family is quite musically gifted, so there would be a few people playing instruments and the rest of us would sing along. It was beautiful praising God and enjoying Christmas together as a family. This was the only “church” I ever knew as a young child. There’d be an accordion, an organ, a harmonica, and a guitar along with all the voices of the people I love. A little piece of heaven.
I remember when we were little, my mum would buy loads of small gifts, like pens, pencils, cute erasers and note pads, along with any other toys and gifts, and she’d wrap them all up separately rather than putting them in bundles, so we would have a mountain of little gifts to open up. It’s all so exciting when you’re little!
That night, all the cousins would sleep over at Ouma and Oupa’s house so we could start playing as soon as we woke up in the morning.
As usual the little ones would be up early playing with their new toys. My Oupa would always wake first and have his tea with the birds in the aviary. Not only at Christmas though, I spent quite a few mornings with him there over the years. He’d go inside and I’d sit on the outside feeding grasses through the wire fence, loving that the little birds would trust me enough to come up to my hand and nibble on the grass I offered them. It was always a quiet time, no talking, I imagine this is how he spent his morning time with the Lord.
On Christmas morning, the ladies would be cooking up a storm in the kitchen and the men would be gathered around the BBQ getting it nice and hot for the meat and as we played in the garden I remember the sound of the men catching up and laughing and the ladies, and the pots and pans, chattering away in the kitchen.
Since it is Summer time in December, our Christmas day usually focused around the “braai” (BBQ) which was either in Oupa’s back yard or on the beach nearby. A glorious feast including a selection of meat and garlic bread would be cooked over the coals, this would be accompanied by a dry crumbly porridge made of maize meal, called “pap”, a typically South African dish that gets topped with a tomato and onion sauce. This was a staple at every BBQ, it is a kind of substitute for rice and gravy and of course there would be a huge selection of salads and a few desserts to choose from.
I don’t have memories of incredible gifts or trips or visiting Santa’s grotto, what I have carried with me is the memory of family togetherness. The joy and love that fills my heart when I remember the time spent together. When I think back I can hear their laughter and voices and I know that in that place there was love. Love for each other and love for our Lord who came to earth to save us.
What this has taught me is that money isn’t important, expensive techy gifts aren’t important, what lasts is the feeling of being loved and the memories of family togetherness. More than any material gift, make sure your loved ones enjoy each other, have fun together, play games, sing songs, sit down together for a meal. It’s not about getting or giving the best gift, it’s about Who already gave us all the best gift! Have fun and love each other as He has loved us.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
– Isaiah 9:6