Despite the fact that the festive twinkly fairy lights have to fight to get noticed in the glare, and the wilting snowflakes on shop windows have an air of the ridiculous about them, the festive season in South Africa has an extra celebratory edge to it, because this is the time when many businesses shut up shop for the end-of-year holidays, the schools all close and there’s a mass, sunblock encrusted migration to the coast for a few glorious weeks.
Because of the season, Christmas here doesn’t have the same delightful, wintery magic about it that it has in the northern hemisphere, and some of the Yule-tide charm is diluted by the sunshine, but who’s going to complain when there’s watermelon to eat on the lawn, or sea to soak in after a hearty session of sandcastle-building on the beach?
Not all South Africans spend their Christmas hols at the sea. There are trips to game reserves, visits to hometowns where family still live, farm holidays, mountain holidays, and trips to dams and forests, and of course, many of us stay right where we are. This year, I’m spending Christmas at home in Johannesburg. I love doing this, because while there’s no beach, there are also no crowds and no traffic. The streets are quiet, the restaurants and cafes have tables a-plenty, and the whole city falls under a sort of spell, soaked in silence, birdsong and summer heat.
Christmas day itself is almost always boiling hot wherever you find yourself, and in Joburg, there’s often a furious electric storm in the afternoon (particularly if you’ve spent hours setting up a festive lunch in the garden). Our day usually begins with breakfast outside, where we slurp loads of tea and try to convince one another that it’s not too soon for a mince pie.
Dating from a time when my friends and I had tiny budgets and far-flung families, we’ve developed a tradition of spending ‘the-family-you-choose’ Christmases (happily, this includes some of my actual family too) together whenever we can. On these occasions, so that no one person is slaving away in the kitchen and stressing about sauces, the food remains simple: My husband makes his now-famous peppery roast chicken stuffed with lemon, there are exuberant salads, a pudding of some description (usually featuring chocolate), and indecent litres of Pimms cocktail served in jugs with mint from the garden and slices of Granny Smith apple. Oh and rosemary-sprinkled roast potatoes. LOTS of roast potatoes. If these were missing for any reason at one our Christmas dos, there would be mutiny.
Gifts are also low-cost and low fuss, and usually involve each person buying one gift only (extra points awarded for staying within the allocated budget). At the end of a long, busy year, at a time when consumerism is at a fever pitch and folks are breaking out in hives over what to buy what-sis-name, I find these limitations a relief. Just another reason why my sunny Christmases are so special to me.
Miranda Sherry is the author of Black Dog Summer, a gripping story of a murdered mother who watches from the heavens as her daughter moves in with her aunt's secretive family. The paperback publishes 15th January 2015. The ebook is available to buy now.