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Christmas and Advent celebrations

In this article, we discuss the Christmas traditions we grew up with in South Africa, and how we celebrate Advent and Christmas in New Zealand.

"Geseënde Kersfees!" is an Afrikaans wish for a happy and a blessed Christmas.

Different people experience and celebrate Christmas in different ways. We enjoy celebrating the Advent time, which is marked by a spirit of anticipation leading up to the celebration of Christ's birth.

Marietjie, while born and bred Afrikaans, grew up in a small multi-cultural town in Natal, South-Africa. Here she experienced Christmas being celebrated by Germans, Scandinavians and English friends, leading to an interest in – and fondness of – the different ways people celebrate Christmas.

Over the years we have expanded our family’s Christmas traditions. Actually, though most Afrikaans people did not grew up with many Advent symbols, such as Advent wreaths and calendars, it seems that some of these are now becoming part of their Christmas traditions.

Advent

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day.

An advent wreath has four candles, representing hope, peace, love and joy. The first candle is lit on the first Advent Sunday, two candles on the second Advent Sunday, and so on. A fifth candle, called the Christ Candle, is sometimes placed inside the wreath and lit on Christmas day, along with the hope, peace, love and joy candles.

Most children love counting down the 24 days to Christmas on an Advent calendar. Advent calendars have 24 small boxes or pockets, each filled with a picture, tiny toy, chocolate, or some other kind of candy. Advent calendars are available in the shops, but home-made calendars are extra special. Ours is made from fabric, with 24 little pockets marked 1 to 24, which we use to hide small treats for our daughter.

The months leading up to Christmas

Many Christmas activities start before Advent.

Usually, from the end of October each year, Christmas (fruit) cakes are baked, preserved with liberal quantities of brandy and wrapped in tin foil to “ripen” for Christmas time.

Many Afrikaans churches hold Christmas services in November. The church buildings are decorated with lots of flowers, and the choirs and music ensembles are heavenly.

The reason why the Christmas services are held in November is to accommodate people going away for the December holidays. Schools in South Africa close early December and most industrial and commercial undertakings close down on 15 December for the annual Christmas break. For many people this means going away, and the Afrikaans custom is to bake tins and tins of biscuits to take along to the seaside, or where ever the holidays are going to be spent.

Gingerbread houses

Gingerbread makes a lovely centrepiece at a Christmas table.

When our daughter was a toddler, we adopted the Scandinavian and German custom to build and decorate a gingerbread house. Initially, we baked it ourselves, but we now tend to buy a Scandinavian gingerbread kit, which consists of flat ready-baked gingerbread panels which is glued together using home-made Royal icing. We once made a stable from gingerbread and used little characters from a mini Nativity set to create a gingerbread Nativity scene.

Afrikaans Christmas menus

The traditional hot Christmas meal will consist of turkey, ham, leg of lamb, fried potato, yellow rice with raisins, vegetables and salads, which is quite similar to Christmas menus in New Zew Zealand and the UK. For dessert, there will often be steamed pudding, sometimes with coins hidden inside, served with custard and a brandy sauce. The tables are beautifully set, usually with a Christmas cracker next to each place setting.

But as Christmas is celebrated in summer in South-Africa, usually on a hot sweltering day, people nowadays tend to host a "braaivleis" (BBQ) with elaborate cold salads for a Christmas meal, and serve a cold Christmas Trifle for dessert. Or, they might have a picnic with lots of fruit (such as watermelon) on the beach, in the shades of mountain slopes, or the riverbanks

People celebrate Christmas in their own way of course. Some families will have a traditional Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and a "braaivleis" on Christmas day – or vice versa. Or they might opt to have cheese, fingerfood and wine on Christmas Eve.

Our family's custom is to have a fondue on Christmas Eve and a set meal for Christmas day.

Personally, we do not think it is worthwhile to cook three different meats, just because it is Christmas. We do enjoy preparing a special meal for lunch, but limit it to one main dish. If we celebrate Christmas day with friends, we may all take food along for a potluck meal after church. In NZ, immigrants often come together and celebrate Christmas in the traditional South African manner with other South African families.

Traditional Afrikaans Christmas snacks and delicacies

Traditional Afrikaans snacks and delicacies for the Christmas season include:

  • More than enough home baked biscuits - like "soetkoekies" and "koffiekoekies", “handtertjies – puff pastry circles filled with apricot jam - for all the guests that come visiting
  • Brandy-drenched fruit cake,
  • home-made ginger beer for the thirst,
  • and Christmas trifle. On top of a layer of sherry sprinkled cake, there will be goodies such as nuts, preserved ginger, cherries and canned peaches. On top of that there will be a thick layer of custard. On top of the custard, you will find scoops of green and red jelly. The trifle is served with cream.

Spending Christmas with family

The norm in South-Africa is that families spend Christmas with their wider families. Families usually take turns to spend Christmas with the husband's family one year and with the wife's family the next year. It is interesting to see how a big city like Pretoria can empty out over Christmas time when people go off to join the extended family celebrations. However, as we lived quite far from our extended family, we usually spend Christmas alone.

One of Marietjie’s fondest Christmas memories are of a Christmas spent with her paternal grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins. (Marietjie’s father was one of eight children so there were quite a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins). The cousins performed a Christmas play for the adults and the area under the Christmas tree was full of Christmas presents. The tree was sparkling with decorations. It is lovely to spend time with your loved ones and to remember the Great Gift the Lord gave us by sending his Son to the Earth.

Presents

For Afrikaans speaking people, the opening of Christmas presents usually takes place on Christmas Eve (24th of December), similar to the European custom. After the meal on Christmas Eve, our tradition is to sing or listen to Christmas carols. The oldest male present will read the Christmas story from the Bible, followed by a short prayer thanking God that we can celebrate Christmas together. Usually the youngest child will hand out the Christmas presents (as close to midnight as permitted).

The presents are not supposed to be big and expensive gifts - handmade gifts or smallish purchased gifts are very welcome. We prefer to give bigger presents with birthdays. Marietjie remembers when she was very small, she and her sister opened a present or two in the evening and hanged out a pillow case which was filled the next morning.

Christmas morning

Usually the Christmas service is quite early on Christmas day, so in order to be in time we might not have time to have a big breakfast as well. Nowadays we follow the NZ custom of hanging Christmas stockings out and open presents in the morning before the services. Some Christmas mornings our family of night-owls are running late before the service and have to wait until we’re back.

Many families from an English background in South-Africa normally would open their gifts on Christmas morning or Boxing Day.

Christmas decorations

Just like the food, Christmas decorations are peculiar to the family celebrating Christmas.

Marietjie remembers one Christmas when her family decorated a leafless-branch with homemade decorations of biscuits and aluminium foil decorations, as they were quite far away from civilization and shops.

Usually we decorate our Christmas tree with a slowly growing collection of Christmas decorations from Germany, Africa and New Zealand. Marietjie inherited the family heirloom ornaments from her childhood, and hanging the old decorations on the tree reminds one of all those precious years. We try to buy one new Christmas decoration each year, and the memories they conjure up when we unpack them is great. Some immigrants, not able to be with their relatives in South Africa, hang photo’s of friends and family in their trees to remind them of their circle of friends and family.

There are many traditions in decorating the Christmas tree and for many children decorating the Christmas tree is their best childhood memory. Jaco was the youngest of his family and his privilege, as youngest, was to put their family’s little angel-decoration at the top of the tree.

A few years ago, African bead art was incorporated into Christmas decorations and the result is quite stunning. These decorations "made by African hands but inspired from Europe" are beautiful on traditional trees, but also on Christmas trees made from wire.

Christmas for staff and workers

Most South-African companies pay a Christmas Bonus (usually a 13th cheque) to their staff.

Handing out "Christmas Boxes" to thank servants and domestic workers for their hard work is also a custom in South-Africa. A great Christmas box for a domestic worker, which is usually well received, is a water bucket or a box, filled with packaged groceries. Some shops sell them ready made up.

When we moved to New Zealand we realised that the summer holidays usually kick of with Christmas and that most people take their holiday leave during January. Christmas bonus is not usually part of the package, though some companies in NZ would give gifts to their staff like a gammon or turkey.

Christmas in the neighbourhood

Marietjie grew up in a lovely community in Pretoria where neighbours sang carols together on Christmas Eve. It was their custom to visit our neighbours during Christmas time to wish them a blessed Christmas, though this was not the norm outside their community.

The world-wide trend of decorating the outsides of houses with Christmas lights happens in South Africa as well. Some neighbourhoods are well known for their efforts and it is a fun thing to do for families to "go and see the Christmas lights".

The Santa factor

Personally, we are not great supporters of the custom of having a Father Christmas (Santa in New Zealand), dressed in a red suit and white beard. He looks so out of place, dressed like that in the heat of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. We do feel that too much of a fuss is being made of Santa, which is quite sad. It seems that Christ is left out of “Christ”mas by the shops and media, with the focus is on Santa and expensive presents. Until recently it was possible to find Advent calendars and serviettes decorated with nativity scenes, but nowadays it seems that shops only sells goods with the man dressed in red and white because nativity scenes are no longer Politically Correct – which is quite tragic.

The meaning of Christmas

Christmas should be celebrated to bring Glory to God's Name, in different ways, such as to be kind to other people and bringing families closer.

Having Christmas traditions strengthens families as it creates lovely memories. At the end what our children remember (which will strengthen them in years to come) are the times we've spend with them: the moments of closeness, honesty and peace that they will remember. Having traditions, such as Christmas traditions, is something that makes children feel part of a family. It means a lot to be able to say, “in our family, we celebrate Christmas this way.”

We do realise that there are people who feel that because the origins of many Christmas traditions stem from pre-Christian rites and that Jesus was most probably born in September, they do not want to celebrate Christmas in December. Yet, very recently God told Lydia, a Christian missionary friend of Marietjie, "I am greater than any day, and every day belongs to Me, also the 25th of December. Redeem it back and make sure you celebrate Me in the sight of all who knows you: not necessarily My birth only, but My life because I have risen and I live for evermore!"

Lydia said it was so profound for her, and from that day forth they made an effort to keep Christmas arrangement simple, but beautiful and to allow the Lord God to fill the atmosphere with His glory.

May the Lord bless you during Christmas-time. May it be a time of peace, love, joy, hope and simplicity. Let our actions, our faith and our love lift up the King of kings and the Lord of lords.