It’s a common question – and a bit of a strange one: “Do you have Christmas in Africa?”
Well, yes, we do and it is huge. Like God. Really very, very popular. Which is why it is a strange question. After all, just over 80% of South Africans are apparently church-going Christians, compared, for example, with 11.4% of British people! God bless Africa.
Christmas is therefore clearly not a purely European or American celebration, for many reasons, not least of them being the fact that the major events to which it relates occurred two thousand years ago in a sophisticated Levantine culture, 800 years before Alfred burnt the cakes, a thousand years before the Norman Invasion and 1500 years before Christopher Columbus stumbled across America and ‘discovered’ it.
Yes. We do have Christmas trees, but they are decorated with Ndebele-patterned monkey-oranges. And we have wrapped presents and lots of food. We also have the Queen’s Speech on television - we are in the Commonwealth after all.
Somewhat more illogically, we also have Christmas cards with snowmen on them. And robins – but European robins sitting on snowy holly bushes, and not, as you might expect, our own white-browed scrub robins sitting in dry acacia thorn trees.
But that is where the similarity ends. The rest we have adapted to our own conditions. For example, I have always persuaded my children that Santa’s sleigh is pulled by Keith, a leaf-browsing kudu, not Rudolph, a sugar-lump-chomping, red-nosed reindeer, because who the heck in Africa knows what a reindeer is?
The main key difference is that it doesn’t snow. Ever. So we spend the day outside by the swimming pool and we braai – or barbecue – anything we can get our hands on, including the turkey.
The African tradition of giving presents is a little simpler than the European version too, in that South Africans celebrate by buying things that they wouldn’t always buy in great quantities throughout the year. Most of us mark Christmas as a renewal and in African culture everyone wears new clothes on Christmas Day. We also dispose of whatever is left of our Christmas bonuses by buying a lot of beer to go with the meat, or, in the case of the ruling classes, a lot of Johnnie Walker Blue to go with the KFC.
Of course, Christmas falls in the middle of our summer holidays so the most marked indication that we are about to celebrate the birth of Christ is the moment when most of inland South Africa heads for the toll roads at a rate of over a thousand cars per road per hour and decants, a long drive later, onto the beach in Durban or Cape Town where it spreads its ill-gotten gains and expanding physiques.
Perversely, this also makes it the perfect time to visit the province of Gauteng (where Johannesburg and Pretoria are situated) for Christmas in the non-snow. It’s about Christmas pantomimes, Christmas carol services, Christmas with the Lipizzaners, Christmas shows like Annie and Joseph, and all manner of festivities in celebration of empty roads and malls.
In fact, from early December, the entire country closes down, just like France and Italy in August. Nobody, but nobody, achieves anything at all for about four weeks, with the honourable exception, of course, of the hospitality industry. (So be kind to us – and bear in mind that we are toiling away, alone, in a world full of holidaymakers. Our suppliers are all either on leave or drunk. The shops are empty of food. Our out-sourced laundry is on a half-staffed go-slow. Our electrician is on the beach. Our plumber is on safari in Namibia…)
This period of limbo persists until about 6th January, when the collective hangover (known locally as a babalas or babalazi) starts to clear and everyone drifts home to reconnect with their old clothes, their old jobs and their old lives – renewed, refreshed and a good few kilograms heavier. All the restaurateurs and hoteliers can now take down the tree and get some well-earned shut-eye.
In the meantime, we are ready and we look forward to seeing you soon. Bring your swimming gear, sun tan lotion and a large hat. We will do the rest. Merry African Christmas - it is just like Christmas at home, only better.
Chris Harvie - in real life - is a Lowveld hotelier of thirty years' standing. Having cut his tourism teeth in some of South Africa's finest hotels, he founded Rissington Inn in Hazyview, in 1995. In the parallel universe, however, he is a renowned author, inveterate traveller and freelance travel writer with an insider's view of the industry he loves. Often amusing, occasionally caustic and always entertaining, Chris can be relied upon to dig up an unusual tale and to spin it with consummate skill.