Johannesburg Christmas turns holiday upside down


December 16, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Driving under the Christmas lights that stretched above Johannesburg's downtown streets, the young man from Soweto strained to imagine what this holiday would be like in the winter.

"It must be that everybody is inside, staying warm, with their family," he finally said. "It must be more of a family holiday."

Bingo. The guy hit the nail on the head, precisely pointing out one of the many weird aspects of Christmas for anyone from the northern hemisphere celebrating the holiday here on the southern end of Africa.

It's not just that it's warm for Christmas -- you can find that in Florida and southern California, places that essentially have no seasons. It's that in South Africa, a country that has seasons, Christmas comes in summertime.

That means it's not just the weather that's disconcerting, it's the attitude. Instead of a family-around-the-hearth holiday, it's an everybody-on-the-beach holiday, a community celebration akin to what Americans experience on the Fourth of July.

Even this wouldn't be so bothersome if there were some recognition in the celebration itself that this is not Christmas in the northern hemisphere, some adaptation of the imported trappings of the holiday to the geographic and climatic realities, perhaps by acknowledging indigenous cultures.

But there is scant evidence of that. Instead, Christmas becomes yet another example of what white South Africans seem inordinately proud of -- the fact that they have brought European culture to the tip of Africa and preserved it.

The result is that, along with shopping malls and Top 40 radio, Christmas is imported -- lock, stock and twinkling lights -- from Europe and America.

So, in the middle of summer, you hear the strains of "Frosty the Snowman" and "White Christmas" (which obviously could have two meanings here).

Children hang up stockings. Their Santa Claus is dressed in his red woolen "Night Before Christmas" best, even though that must mean he swelters on his yearly run through this part of the world.

And the decorations are lights and stars and evergreen Christmas trees, all symbols of life's ability to endure the cold days of winter, dating to pre-Christian traditions surrounding celebrations of the winter solstice, that day in late December when the sun stops disappearing and starts coming back.

But in South Africa, Christmas comes just after the summer solstice, a time not for keeping the light alive during the long, cold nights, but for shielding your eyes and protecting your skin from the powerful sun.

Indeed, since Christmas falls during the longest days of the year, it's difficult for small children to stay up late enough to watch the decorative lights go on.

The Christmas season is quite lengthy here. Johannesburg turned on its municipal lights on Nov. 20. But that's because it's tied in with the summer vacation season. It's the equivalent not of America's Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's Day triad, but of the Memorial Day-Fourth of July-Labor Day arc.

Later this week, when the schools finish up their academic year and adjourn for six weeks, Johannesburg will start emptying out as all who can afford to -- mainly the whites, though plenty of people of all races -- head to Cape Town or Durban or some other place near the seaside.

The semi-official beginning of the full-tilt Christmas holiday season comes Dec. 16, known as the Day of the Vow. It is a holy day in Afrikaner history, a victory over the Zulus in 1838, that supposedly sealed their covenant with God granting them dominion over this land. Little work gets done from then until after New Year's, with things getting back to what passes for normal sometime in mid-January when the schools open for a new year.

When South Africa has its first multiracial elections next April, it is likely that many holidays will change. With the Afrikaners no longer in charge, the Day of the Vow, celebrating as it does white dominance over blacks, may well be on its way out.

But most likely, something else will replace it, because everybody is still going to want to know exactly when they are supposed to head for the beach. After all, it's Christmas -- what else are you supposed to do?

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