EAST LONDON, Eastern Cape, South Africa – As a country with 11 official languages and citizens from all walks of life, South Africa can hardly be described in a sentence.
It would be even more difficult to describe Christmas and the festive season in this country with several cultures, traditions and religions.
South Africa is in the Southern hemisphere, and thus Christmas occurs in the very heat of summer. It coincides with the summer holidays of scholars and students.
During the festive season, it becomes an imperative for South Africans to visit the beach.
As a small child, I equated Christmas with the salty sea smell and sunburn, and only later realized that the song “White Christmas” refers to snow and is not quite the remnant of Apartheid South Africa I thought it to be.
Good weather and fun at the sea are so entwined in what makes a South African Christmas, that even the evening news broadcasts on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 include estimates and images of the number of people visiting the beaches that day.
One should never ascribe greater worth to one culture’s customs above another, but the people of the Eastern Province and their traditions lie close to my heart. Particularly so are the Afrikaners and the Xhosas.
Afrikaner culture is endemic to South Africa. Members of this culture trace their heritage to Germany, Holland, Belgium and Malaysia.
In Afrikaners’ households, Father Christmas hands out gifts on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. The majority of South African cultures do this on Dec. 25.
Because Afrikaner culture is predominantly Christian, the Nativity plays a big role in its celebrations. Prayers and Bible readings often take place before and after gifts have been exchanged.
Christmas Day is a day of celebration, which happens by means of church services and delicious food. Preparations for Christmas lunch start early in the morning, and guests can expect a spread of dishes and meats prepared in a way that is unique to Afrikaners.
It has been said that culture is never stagnant. When my father was a child, they placed empty pillowcases at the foot-end of their beds and woke up on Christmas Day with pillowcases full of presents. My mother, during the same decade, received presents underneath the Christmas tree from Father Christmas. They are both Afrikaners.
The Xhosa people are also endemic to South Africa and originate mainly from the Province of the Eastern Cape.
Christmas is the most important time of the year for Xhosa families to reunite, explained Masande Magaqa, a 19-year-old student from the Eastern Cape who is currently studying in Cape Town.
Xhosa families are known to be very large, and so are their celebrations.
Traditional Xhosas follow African Traditional Religion, which can loosely be described as Christianity and African tradition, mixed. This means that members believe in Christ as the Messiah, but also believe in the power of their ancestors.
Traditional Xhosa families travel to their ancestral lands for the festive period and slaughter a cow or a sheep to their ancestors.
In African Traditional Religion it is important to appease one’s ancestors in order to attain good fortune.
As is common globally, South African culture is exposed to Westernization, especially the African cultures. Hence we can distinguish between “more traditional” and “less traditional” Xhosa families.
Less traditional families do not necessarily visit their ancestral lands and will not necessarily slaughter an animal to their ancestors.
More traditional families buy a complete outfit, from head to toe, for each child as a gift to wear on Christmas Day and other special occasions. Less traditional families exchange gifts via Father Christmas.
The Eastern Cape has in recent years gained notoriety as “South Africa’s poorest province.” This makes the gap or chasm between rich and poor more obvious than many would like to witness.
Joyce Dyasi, a Xhosa mother and domestic worker with extremely limited English vocabulary, said, “Children are naughty. They see gifts in shops and just say ‘Give, give, give!’”
During the almost 20 years since the abolishment of Apartheid in South Africa, citizens have become more proud of their nationality and asserted their identity. As a result, the number of decorations depicting snow-covered landscapes and reindeer has decreased drastically. In their place are nativity scenes with wise men and a baby Jesus of African ethnicity, and decorations have a distinctly African and summery air.
An example can be found at Hemingways Mall, the latest shopping center to open in East London, South Africa. The managers of the mall recruited unemployed African women to craft beaded Christmas decorations for the mall. Beadwork is an important part of African culture.
The women were at work in a special workshop during shopping hours, giving the public the opportunity to witness the handiwork as well as to purchase it.
The women were paid for their labor as well as their craft. This endeavor made the festive season more financially viable to a group of less fortunate individuals and gave the mall a distinctively festive African flavor.
There is a state of mind that is tangible to all citizens here. At those all-important beach gatherings, there are no longer signs declaring, “WHITES ONLY” or partitions for “WHITES – COLOUREDS – BLACKS – INDIANS.”
If you are non-white, there is no fear of being stopped by an official asking for your pass book; if you are white, you do not run the risk of incarceration by sun tanning next to a member of a different race.
One may say that in this country, Christmas has found meaning all over again. Two thousand years ago it signaled freedom from oppressive rule; today, it symbolizes that this freedom has once again been won.
Mariechen Puchert is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.