This time of year is one of traditions – how we celebrate, who we celebrate with, friends we see, things we do.
When I was young, growing up in Johannesburg, Christmas always left me with a sense of the absurd. Not in any religious sense, but rather in the way my family celebrated.
We were not a religious family, so going to church was not part of our tradition. Sometimes we went to midnight mass, sometimes we said prayers at home, sometimes neither. Which we chose depended largely on what my Presbyterian mother felt like. And if we did attend mass, it was always at St. Martin’s in the Field Anglican church.
The most important day of the Christmas season was Christmas day itself. As kids we could hardly contain ourselves when we went to sleep the night before because we knew, when we woke up, that there would be a ‘stocking’ at the end of the bed filled with little toys, games, and other knick-knacks. In reality, the ‘stocking’ was a pillowcase. I never asked why we had a pillowcase rather than a stocking, but felt it was a good idea since pillowcases are generally bigger than stockings.
|A stocking? Not for us!|
In retrospect, the decision to have a stocking may have been based simply on the notion that with more things to play with, my brothers and I wouldn’t wake up my parents at the crack of dawn to get our real presents.
My parents extended the agony of waiting by insisting that we have a sit-down English breakfast before we could gather around the Christmas tree for the doling out of gifts. Even gobbling down the fruit, cereal, eggs and bacon didn’t help, as my parents took their time to finish.
Then there was the tree – always a source of puzzlement for me. We had a live evergreen that spent the rest of the year planted in the garden with its roots in a bucket. I think there were two reasons for the bucket: first, the tree was easily moved into the house before Christmas and back into the garden in early January; and second, the bucket prevented the tree growing very much – a sort of Bonzai approach.
The tree was decorated with the usual trappings: glass balls, ornaments, plastic angels, lights, garlands, and a star at the top. Then – and this was the source of the puzzlement – the tree was sprayed with artificial snow. Why do this? I always wondered. There never was snow in Johannesburg, certainly not in the middle of summer.
I suppose my South-African-born parents wanted to replicate the traditions of their European-born parents.
The European theme continued all day. The house I grew up in had a large dining room, so other family members - cousins, uncles, and aunts - came to us for dinner. And dinner was traditional – a turkey and a ham, with roast potatoes and various other vegetables. But before we started on the main course, we all pulled crackers, eagerly hoping that we would get the treat inside. Everyone then put on paper hats, even my shy father and quiet grandfather.
|Not my family, but the same enthusiasm!|
|Not my family, but could have been.|
|Gramps MacGregor gets a very welcomed bottle of Scotch|
After the main course, the level of tradition notched up a bit. The curtains were closed, and my cousin, Murray MacGregor, a wee lad at the time, hitched up his kilt, waggled his sporran, tucked his bagpipes under his arm and played Scotland the Brave (apologies for the militaristic images). At that moment, my father walked ceremoniously into the dining room from the kitchen holding the flaming plum pudding.
We eagerly waited to be served because in everyone’s helping, there would be a small silver charm or a tickey – the local slang for the thruppeny (three pence) coin. Since we boys weren’t into silver charms, we were eager to get the tickey, of which there was only one.
|The coveted tickey|
By the time the Christmas meal was over, it was late afternoon – the perfect time to go outside, lie down in the sun next to the swimming pool, and swear that we would never eat that much again.
This year, I am in Denmark for Christmas. The outside temperature is hovering around freezing – a few degrees above, a few degrees below. There is no snow on the ground, only mud. And there is no sun in the sky, only damp, dank, dark clouds.
And I think back to my childhood – and pleasures of Christmas in summer.
Wishing you a merry Christmas and holiday season. I hope you enjoy good health, happiness, and prosperity in the new year.