A real Christmas in Africa

Ah, Christmastime. A time to relish big, home-cooked feasts, warm Christmas pudding, eggnog, roasting chestnuts on an open fire, and other song lyrics.

That is all good and well for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, where December means freezing weather, with the possibility of a white Christmas. However, down at the southern tip of Africa, things are a little bit different. Late December is high summer, and that can mean temperatures on the wrong side of 100. At Christmas events people spend a lot of time ensuring Santa stays cool, as a fur-trimmed red coat, big boots and a beard don’t represent the best choice in clothing for dealing with the African sun. No one wants Santa to tip over from heat exhaustion and traumatise all the little kids (even more than the sight of Santa traumatises them under normal circumstances).

And this being South Africa, Santa’s reindeer are nowhere in sight – I guess they’ve heard of our propensity to cook anything we can catch over an open fire. Some call it ritual meat burning – we call it a braai.

So on to the Christmas meal then. Where a turkey with all the trimmings may seem the perfect meal for a midwinter feast, the act of cooking (and eating) a meal like that in an African summer can come really close to killing you. Not that a little inconvenience like that has ever stopped anyone.

As South Africa is not exactly turkey country, the role of main meat is often played by something a little bit more substantial, like leg of lamb, or an entire ox, depending on whether you are spending Christmas alone or with a couple of friends and family.

Yet the more ‘traditional’ Christmas meal is certainly making inroads, even if you will still hear grumbling from grandad that turkey is not a proper meat. After all, chicken (and what is a turkey if not a big chicken?) is still considered a member of the vegetable group back in South Africa. If you have ever watched the way chickens run out into the road here in Cayman, it is exceedingly difficult to believe that they are not closely related to potatoes, at least when it comes to their mental faculties.

What about substituting an ostrich for the tradition turkey, you ask? Unfortunately that wouldn’t quite do the trick. Although both are big birds, ostrich is in fact red meat, not white, so the effect wouldn’t be quite the same. They do make for good eating though.

This being South Africa, many will find ways to adapt Christmas recipes to the summery conditions. After all, most things that can be cooked can be cooked over an open fire. And no, it is not commonplace to spit-braai a giraffe for the Christmas feast, although I guess you would be able to arrange something like that if you really wanted to.

However, the problem with standing around an open fire during the heat of the day in the African summer should be rather obvious. Traditional segregation also steps in very quickly as the men try to prove that they can handle the heat by congregating around the fire while the women take the much more intelligent option and hide indoors.

The summer heat also has a definite impact on the choice of sweets, with ice cream playing a vital role. However, with the heavy pressure of tradition, you can still expect to find many families sitting down to a traditional (and often reviled) warm Christmas pudding. After all, the heavier the pudding, the longer you have to wait before you can get back in the pool again.

Ah yes, the swimming pool (or farm dam if you happen to have one of those around) is also central to any sensible Christmas lunch. In fact, it is quite often the deciding factor in terms of who gets to host what is the biggest family gathering of the year.

It is worth keeping in mind though that South Africa is quite a big country and South Africans are generally still of the belief that a thousand miles can be driven in one sitting, with just a quick lunch stop somewhere in between. This means that Christmastime will see an exodus from the north of the country as everyone makes a run for the coast, while those living at the coast with family members in the north can expect to be have a household full of guests the entire festive season long. Yet even the threat of having to deal with up-country family for a week or three isn’t enough to convince coastal folk to gather up their worldly possessions and rather spend the holiday up north. Thou shalt not forsake the ocean.