Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas on the Other Side

Americans don’t seem to know a lot about South Africa. In fact, some Americans can’t tell the difference between Africa (a continent) and South Africa (a country on the continent along with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria, and a whole lot of other places you’ve probably never heard of, either). I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised since it is widely rumoured that I share breathing space and citizenship with people who can’t tell the difference between Mexico (a foreign country) and New Mexico (an American state).

Anyway, a certain amount of ignorance about South Africa is to be expected, I suppose. The apartheid years saw news blackouts in both directions, and American schools don’t go into much depth regarding the less developed world. So, if you are labouring under the misconception that South Africa still has apartheid, or that lions and tigers roam the streets, or that South Africa is a dangerous, undeveloped poverty pocket where half-naked, skin-draped natives make war on each other and the witch doctors hold sway, you aren’t entirely alone.

I knew about Johannesburg and Cape Town being large, cosmopolitan cities, but in my circle of acquaintances, I seemed to be in the minority…a rather scary observation when you realize that the vast majority of the people I associate with are highly intelligent, reasonably well-educated individuals. Some of the questions I fielded when I announced my intention to move to Cape Town: “Is the water safe?” “Are there paved roads?” “Are the animals still loose or have they been put in parks like Yosemite?” (Yes, yes, and

Now that I’m here, I still get some odd questions from friends and acquaintances back in the States. Like, do we celebrate Thanksgiving here? No, actually, we don’t. Thanksgiving is an American holiday, ostensibly commemorating that first feast between the Pilgrims and Indians. There weren’t any Pilgrims in South Africa, and the Indians here are from India.

South Africa is a largely Christian nation, the missionaries of old having done their jobs well, bless their little black hearts. There is also a large Muslim community here, and Durban has more Hindu temples than you can shake a stick at. Many of the black people still worship ancestors or adhere to animist beliefs, sometimes simultaneously with being church-going Christians. And yet despite all of this religious diversity, Christmas is almost universally celebrated here.

But an American might have a bit of difficulty recognizing the Christmas spirit in South Africa. The Dutch are a frugal people and their Afrikaner acorns have not fallen far from the Dutch tree. One of my first impressions of the white community here was how tight they are: little ad papers proliferate here and people advertise…and actually expect to sell…their old toilets, window frames, kitchen curtains, and closet gleanings…and for extraordinary prices, too! The concept of donating to charitable organizations like Goodwill or Salvation Army or St. Vincent DePaul is not very well established here. It is no surprise, then, that the American tradition of buying a boatload of gifts for the family, particularly the immediate family, has little traction in South Africa.

We don’t have live Christmas trees, either. South Africa is a semi-arid climate and arable land (and the water to irrigate it) is at a premium…and used for food production. There are few natural forests here, and the planted forests are primarily eucalyptus and the property of paper companies. In fact, wood is scarce here compared to the US and costly. Houses are built of clay or cement bricks, rather than stick-built like in America. Trees, particularly those trees that can grow tall and become timber, are not sacrificed for a couple of weeks of display.

Of course, we can’t discount the frugal nature of the South African: not having the emotional attachment to the tradition of a fragrant, gew-gaw encrusted pine in the middle of the living room as Americans have, South Africans find the reusable fake tree to be the optimal choice. Our table-top fibre optic tree has served us for four years and will be pressed into service again this year…rather a bit of an irony, considering that my father has a Christmas tree farm in Oregon!

Despite the fact that South Africans tend not to give each other…or their children…teetering mountains of Christmas swag, the malls are presently jammed with throngs of harried shoppers who brought their credit cards and shopping lists but left their manners at home. A large number of these people are vacationers, Cape Town being one of the favourite summer holiday destinations in this country, and while they jam the malls and parking lots, their teeming numbers don’t necessarily translate into piles of presents under those fake trees. Johannesburg is South Africa’s answer to LA when it comes to traffic, and the vacationing Joburgers don’t leave their combative traffic habits at home when they take their holidays in Cape Town…which they snarkily call “SlaapStad” (“SleepTown”)…which turns navigating our laidback roadscape into a knuckle biting experience. It isn’t much different in the parking lots, malls, or shops, either. So the holiday experience here, at least where shopping and driving is concerned, isn’t too different from my experiences in Silicon Valley.

My first Christmas here, five members of Hubby’s family…including my newly-minted mother-in-law…came to visit and I prepared a traditional American Christmas dinner. Well, that was the plan, anyway. I had my first taste of culture shock when I went shopping for the 22 pound turkey that was my customary centrepiece of the meal…no turkey! Seems that South Africans are only just developing a taste for turkey meat, preferring chicken or ham for their Christmas dinners. Eventually I found a turkey…a puny 11 pounder…and found myself with another surprise: the pinfeathers had neither been plucked out nor singed. Spoiled American that I am, I grumbled as I sat at the breakfast bar with pliers and stick matches, plucking and singeing and getting the turkey ready.

Shock number two came when I tried to put the turkey in the oven…the roaster was bigger than the oven! So, I lined a flat cake pan with foil and plopped the gobbler in side, folded up the sides to make a tent, and took it to the oven.

Surprise, surprise! The turkey…a puny little 11 pound turkey, barely larger than a fat chicken…wouldn’t fit into the oven. It was too tall! Right…the top edge of the turkey breast was literally touching the top of the oven! I managed to get the thing flattened down a bit and then get the beast roasted, but thank goodness I couldn’t find the 22 pounder I had originally been after!

Nobody knew what candied yams were, although mince pie (which is called a “tart” here) was recognized and eagerly wolfed down. Then, as a nod to South African Christmas traditions, we had a Christmas pudding (which is more of a fruit cake than anything else) with something called “custard” poured over it. Now, when you say “custard” to an American, we get a mental image of a firm-textured yellow milk-and-egg thing that, when cut, holds its shape. Not so South African custard…here, the word custard is used to describe a kind of custard-coloured, vanilla-flavoured thick sweet sauce with the consistency of pudding that failed to set. You can pour it…in fact, you do pour it. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of either fruitcake or custard, so the appeal of the dish is lost on me, but Hubby’s family was enthusiastic in their demolition of it.

The English custom of pulling Christmas crackers, completely unknown in America, continues to be indulged here. Wikipedia explains Christmas crackers so much better than I can: . Despite my husband and his family being Hindu, we exchange Christmas gifts and everyone seems to be enthralled with those Christmas crackers.

I’m an American. I don’t get it.


  1. Obviously Christmas customs in Cape Town differ from those in KZN and Gauteng. I've never heard mince pies called mince tarts!

    Also, in my youth we had turkey for Christmas - heck, we even raised turkeys.

    But more recently they have been difficult to get -- poultry farming changed with Rainbow chickens, when everything became standardised and battery hens were the in thing.

    Then fresh turkeys were impossible to find. One could only get imported frozen ones from the USA (perhaps the ones they couldn't sell for Thanksgiving). And they came in plastic wrappers that proclaimed that they were "self-basting", which sounded like some very horrible genetic modification, and made me suspect that they had also been injected with all kinds of weird chemicals and hormones.

  2. I can only address the last four years...

    I tore Cape Town apart looking for a turkey my first Christmas here. This year Pick n Pay has frozen ones, but only a small selection. (Those "self-basting" turkeys have liquified butter injected under the skin of the breast so it melts during roasting, keeping the skin from becoming too crisp.)

    Tarts: you are right about mince tarts...what I meant (and obviously was not clear about) is that what we, in America, call pies are mostly called tarts here. You see, to the American mind (and most of my readers are American), a tart is a small pie, whereas here, a tart is a non-savoury pie. In America, the size of the item defines whether it is called a tart or a pie; in South Africa, the contents makes the definition (I've never heard of a steak-and-kidney tart, but those pies you buy at the PnP are tart-sized for Americans!)

    My husband is from KZN and it is from him that I learned about Christmas pudding and crackers. Americans just roast giant turkeys and eat until they are comatose, but considering the compact size of the turkeys here, I can see why South Africans have devised other things to do at the end of the meal!

    Merry Christmas to you!


  3. Pies and tarts: in South African English the difference is that a pie has a pastry crust on top, whereas a tart does not. It has nothing to do with the content.

    But South Africans do sometimes confuse them, especially when English is not their first language.

    A lawyer friend told me of a judge who, in sentencing the just-convicted accused, said that "he had a finger in every tart in town".


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