Christmas in Southern Africa is all about family. As a nation, South Africans are very family-orientated and generally, our festive advent calendar centers around many a get-together with the tribe. Our hospitality is our hallmark and festivities, usually marked with festive foods, is something in which we take great pride. We can all agree that there’s nothing more exciting than seeing the faces of children light up with the wonder of Christmas, your zip code besides. Many of our traditions embrace the ideal of keeping the magic alive for the next generation.
December is summer in our part of the world. Contrary to the frosty depictions upon the festive treats stocked on our shelves, the closest we come to snow is a snow globe on the mantle or a snow cone. Instead, with schools on summer break, the long days of lazing by the pool stretch into jasmine-scented balmy nights and cheerful fireside chatter under the stars around a ‘braai’ or, BBQ. Many South Africans make a pilgrimage to the coast, booking villas, self-catering chalets or, heading to their ‘strandhuis’ or beach house, for their hard-earned holiday.
We thought it would be fun to share with you our top ten most cherished traditions in South Africa. A unique year, we may not be able to observe all these this year due to COVID-19. Regardless, let’s wander through together and share the good tidings of hope for a better year ahead.
- Christmas Tree: A beloved pastime for children this beautiful tradition, officially signifies the start of the festive season. While the shops have decorations up by November usually, each family has their preferred date for decorating theirs, generally by mid-December. Whether it be a fake fir or a real (sometimes messy) pine tree, this tradition is an essential precursor of the festive holidays. Those keen to avoid a fight with the tangled fairy lights rejoice in tree rental companies that deliver a tree already beautifully decorated; done and (fairy) dusted—a stroke of genius.
- Carols by candlelight: Popular in communities is to share the experience of singing Christmas carols by candlelight. Children particularly love this, and it’s an excellent opportunity for reflection, togetherness and meaning making at this time of year. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is a celebrated beauty spot to enjoy this pastime with the family. This year, the organizers are committed to keeping up the time-honored tradition in this unique time of COVID-19 by broadcasting memorable past events into the homes of would-be carolers.
- Christmas parties: Come and meet Santa’s reindeer, elves, Tinkerbell and many more fantastical creatures. Get a picture with Santa Claus himself, still all snowy from the North Pole. Uncle Paul’s is arguably the best known, most well-attended Christmas party annually. Picnic with your childhood heroes. Pssst…parents, don’t forget to take along a wrapped present for the little ones, hand-delivered by Santa.
- Mince pies: These decadent shortbread warm-spiced fruit mince tartlets often served as a morning, afternoon tea or as served warm as a dessert with vanilla ice-cream. Historically, recipes did include meat mince, but in modern times, the line is drawn at beef suet, more the exception than the rule. A word to the wise, remember to dust off the icing sugar from your lips if tempted to sneak one from the larder. Else you’ll be outed before you can say ‘naughty or nice’.
- Christmas dinner: Whether your definition of ‘dinner’ follows British customs as a midday spread, or whether it is a special evening meal, your festive menu is likely to include turkey, gammon and the ubiquitous trifle, the latter often elicits a love, hate reaction. Don’t fancy spending the morning in a hot kitchen? Languid lunches on a wine farm make spirits bright, appeasing moms especially. These Christmas queens, having earned their (candy) stripes, gladly surrender aprons and oven gloves for the occasion.
- Soul Safari: To experience the joy of escaping to one of South Africa’s many beautiful safari parks is always a good idea, especially at Christmas time. It is tons more fun with the family. Countless games of ‘I spy’ and spot hunting wild animals at the waterhole, cold drinks in the cooler box, strengthen the ties that bind and soothe the soul. Cheers to that! There are few festive activities to rival the feel-good factor of a Christmas safari. True, the bush may be a bit thicker, adding to the restful background against which joviality plays out. Want in on the action? Our safari elves are on standby to assist you in crafting your Christmas safari. Don’t be surprised when your safari guides don their Santa hats on game drives around Christmas Day.
- ‘Lekker’ Braai: This everyday celebration of life in sunny South Africa takes on a special sparkle at this time of year. The dishes are a bit more ‘lekker’ (read: delicious), and there are a fair amount more green and red in your napkin selection than at other times of the year. A real splash-out BBQ experience, the ‘spit-braai’, is ideal for larger family gatherings. Best served with a cold drink of choice and a swim. Come hungry!
- Secret Santa: An economical Christmas go-to for larger families or office parties, the Secret Santa tradition is a great way to honor the gift of giving without having to break the piggy bank (very much needed after this year!).
- Santa’s Shoebox: In the spirit of giving to those less fortunate, this tradition was initiated years ago and has gained in popularity. Easy to do, Santa Shoebox project is a beloved tradition of charity embraced by South Africa at large.
- Christmas Calendars: Supporting an animal shelter or worthy causes couldn’t be easier. A super stocking-filler proving that it feels better to give than to get. The SPCA’s dog and cat calendars are a perennial hit, and what’s more, you can order online and get yours couriered to you. Bow, wow, wow!
Are you visiting beautiful Africa over Christmas? Lucky fish! We thought we’d help you out with some local festive greetings so you can have a few sweet words ready for the occasion. Here’s how you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in the many diverse languages in Africa. Thanks to our friends at Gold Restaurant for putting this useful guide together. Cheers!
Remember, when smiling for your Christmas pictures, in South Africa we say ‘Cheese’. At this time of year, it is also perfectly acceptable to say ‘Cheers’. On that note, here’s to you and yours. May you have a great festive season, wherever you may be celebrating.
Till next year, ‘hamba kahle’, go well and keep wandering.