Scary stories from a lovely place
This will be my first Christmas in South Africa. Even though it’s my third year of living here, for the previous 2 Christmas’ I’ve managed to return to the side of the world with all the trappings of a commercial Christmas. Last year Stephen and I were in snowy Dublin – we ate turkey and bread sauce and potatoes in various forms, and the year before in sunny Wombarra where we ate prawns, antipasto, octopus and salad, salad, salad.
It goes without saying that South Africa is far more diverse than Australia or Ireland and this is seen clearly at Christmas. It would seem that not everyone cares about Christmas here. Indeed, when living in Western countries, like Australia, at Christmas time it’s hard to imagine anyone anywhere not being bombarded by Christmas music in every shop, gaudy decorations around every corner and the constant orgy of consumption of gifts and too much delicious food. I guess that’s the thing about the Western world. All of life is tailored in a way to make it feel like that is the reality for everyone, and so images of poverty, famine or even just difference are received with confusion and distracted concern.
My first realisation that not everyone cares about Christmas was when my local Pick n Pay supermarket in Brixton advertised their Christmas trading hours. They are open Christmas Day, Boxing Day (St Stephen’s day for the Irish) without much change in their regular schedule. When I first saw this I thought to myself “wow Pick n Pay are really committed to pleasing their customers. In case any have a last minute mince pie or red wine emergency they can rush in on Christmas morning to make the necessary purchases”. But it didn’t really make sense to me so I checked with Stephen, who is always a step ahead on such matters, and he told me it’s because Brixton and surrounding areas has a really high Muslim population. These fellow South Africans will go through Saturday as if it’s no different to another day. Well, of course – that makes sense.
Then I was having a conversation with some friends, who are Jewish, and I asked them what their plans were for Christmas Day (while I scoured their living room for the obligatory tree). But there would be no celebration and no tree. Again, of course that makes sense not to celebrate what is inherently a Christian holiday. But I was under the impression that Christmas has, at least in a general way, moved so far beyond being about anything Christian, despite the occasional nativity scene, that it didn’t matter anymore. Even for me, Christmas isn’t really about anything solely Christian. It’s more about seeing family and eating nice food and giving presents. I don’t even normally go to church on Christmas morning. I’m more of the celebrate-Jesus-all-year kind of person, rather than make a special day of it.
These revelations have made me realise that South Africa really does tone down the whole Christmas thing. In most malls there is some effort towards Christmas decorations and a few carols heard chiming away in the background. But it’s not a big deal. I have barely had any conversations about Christmas shopping, sending cards or decorating trees. It’s refreshing to treat the 25th more like a normal day – where there just happens to be an amazing lunch. And I’m confident in the knowledge that if we need to go to our local hardware store, Indian spice bazaar or sewing shop all will be open for business on the 25th December.