South Africa Journal: Christmas in July

For only the second time in eight days, the infernal southeast breeze that blusters throughout the Cape Town summer has stopped for a few hours, allowing the heat of the early morning to sink in. It is early Christmas Day, and while Americans are tucking the kids into bed to await the midnight journey of Santa Claus, Capetonians are waking up to a bright morning of worship, gifts, family, friends–all soon to be followed by the beach.

South Africans acknowledge the winter origins of the holiday with Christmas trees, fake snow decorations and Santa suits. Yet Christmas is a midsummer festival, and so it has a sensual quality that contrasts, inevitably, with the cozy intimacy of the festive season in the northern hemisphere. Cape Town in particular is a feast for the senses: the local food is fresh and spectacular, the people are beautiful, and the city is in the mood to party.

There are a few unique local Christmas traditions, most of British origin, such as the fruit-filled pastries called “mince pies,” and the annual “Christmas box” gift to household staff and municipal workers (hence “Boxing Day”). There are a few local ones, as well, such as the countrywide rush to the beach on the day after Christmas, and the local Capetonian tradition of colorful Christmas bands, soon followed by minstrels and Malay choirs.

In my wife’s family, there is also the tradition of great-grandmother’s annual Christmas cake–the only brandy her late husband, a much-loved local pastor, would allow in the house. I have tasted this year’s cake early in the process and I can say that fruitcake certainly deserves a better reputation, if Ma’s handiwork is a representative sample! On my father-in-law’s side, there are German traditions, too, such as gift-giving Christmas eve.

I’m looking forward to a slow start to the day–a run on the ocean, daily prayers at the Gardens synagogue, and a cup of coffee–before the Christmas festivities start in earnest. The wind usually picks up later in the day, which could dampen the peaceful mood a bit. But if the wind remains still, this just might be one of the best holidays anyone remembers in Cape Town, one celebrated in the full warmth, brightness and joy of the summer season.