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The way we lived. 23. Christmas Days.

Updated: Jun 5, 2023


It’s been a while. I hope you all enjoyed the festives – I did!

So this is the view across from the Hout Bay Harbour looking left towards Chapman’s peak where regular rainfall dramas have caused the road to wash away into the sea way below. A photo like this will either precede or follow a fried snoek and chip lunch on the harbourside way down on the right over there – it’s a rite of passage when in Hout Bay.

THE WAY WE LIVED[23] Christmas Days [9 Min read]

“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” is one of those hackneyed expressions and concepts that can conjure up all sorts of memories for many people. There may be reminders of indifference, joy, sadness, anger, hatred, love … It can be complicated, depending on one’s circumstances. Should we even have this annual indulgence, a time of excess, a time of capitalist delight?

Party-pooper? Maybe I am, but I had my moments! After all, when growing up in a household that was minimalist in celebrating Xmas, what was the day without a new cap-firing pistol or revolver on one’s hip for the day and subsequent games of cowboys and crooks with the rest of the kids in the street who also had the same hardware on the big day. The lucky few sported cowboy hats to the envy of those who did not have one. Those cap-firing guns had to last till next Christmas. Regardless, we’d shoot up a storm with our rolls of shots in our repeaters until we ran out of the exploding paper/carboard strips. Xmas was not Xmas without the smell of gunpowder in the nostrils for part of the day!

Besides the rank commercialism of Xmas, there’s also the stereo-typicality of it all that irritates. Having a “white” Xmas is one thing. After all, Santa Claus’ annual trip starts somewhere up north. In the Arctic circle? The old fellow had all kinds of furry outfits, but red-and-white became popular in the early 1900s. And no, it is an urban legend that Coca Cola popularised the colours.

While on the subject of colour, how often has one seen a Black Father Xmas? Even in South Africa, I only recall pale St Nicks. Is that still the case today? Have you ever seen a Black Jesus? Is that blasphemous? Was Jesus an Arab? Maybe Maori – visit the Faith Anglican Church on Lake Rotorua, New Zealand for an answer to that one.

Better yet, see the Black Christ painted by the activist artist Ronald Harrison who managed a double strike by painting Jesus in the image of Albert Luthuli, the ANC leader before Nelson Mandela, and so challenged the traditional belief that Christ was White. For the second strike he depicted two of the Roman soldiers as Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and Justice Minister Vorster, and later Prime Minister. For this “blasphemy” he suffered torture and imprisonment, and the painting had to be smuggled to the UK for over 30 years before it returned to the SA National Gallery in 1997. Now that painting alone is an excuse to visit Cape Town! [Luthuli’s death will be part of a future blog on South African leaders who died mysteriously.]

Of course, as youngsters, we had other things to look forward to. One went around to greet the neighbours and hoped for a treat of some sort. A biscuit and a sweet or two were common at most doors with an occasional drink – usually cordial, maybe Oros? More appreciated than the treats was a rare coin or two.. After all, it was the summer school holidays, and one was always looking for money for bioscope[cinema] [Is it still called bioscope in Cape Town? What about robots for traffic lights? It took me a while to switch over when we left RSA. Now it sounds … quaint!]

An old couple lived opposite us in one of a four-house row of wood-and-iron terrace houses. They were tiny structures, with small dingy rooms. From the front door, there was a clear view through to the tiny back yard. They were rather poor, but the old man, Mr T, mischievously, always offered us a small glass of Old Brown sherry. Mrs T always scolded him for his offer!

Alongside the T’s was our local shebeen. That’s an Irish word for an illegal liquor house. None of the kids went knocking at that door which was directly across from our front door on Dale Street, Lansdowne. It was an adults’ only place which the police regularly raided in an attempt to control the business. The “smokkie” [smokkelhuis, literally a smuggling house] reminded me of the House of the Rising Sun – And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy, And God I know I’m one. I just love that number! And, no, I’m not one. By the way, South Africa had far more shebeens than Ireland ever had. They’re still there, but now many are upscale drinking dens with jukeboxes with Cape Jazz music. Some are in converted garages or larger informal structures in amongst shanty complexes.

I suppose I was not one for indulgences so, even in my teens, Xmas was a quiet affair. With my in-laws, it was a more organised business with much cooking and preparation in the heat of summer. Eventually, the summer braais[barbeques] took over, and we had outings to the mountains.

We finally settled on a day under the pine trees and alongside the small catchment area at the Silvermine Reserve at the top of Ou Kaapse Weg where the kids could muck around <– with me in the water. I’ve always been at my happiest when surrounded by nature. Throw in a fire, and it gets even better; better yet good family and/or friends. Xmas in southern hemisphere countries is best done outdoors over a fire!

And the best braai wood? Oak, without a doubt, with softer pine or rooikrantz [that’s West Australian wattle] to keep the harder, flavourful oak going. A generous Hilux load of municipal oak off-cuts was one of the first “jobs” before Xmas, usually achieved with a quick trip to the Devil’s Peak picnic spots on De Waal Drive where the council dumped convenient length pieces of wood which were ready for splitting. Many parts of old Cape Town have streets lined with oak trees. The best part of a Xmas braai was sneaking the kids a lamb chop or two, but they had to be sworn to secrecy. “Just don’t tell your Mom!” To this day, they have kept the secret. Thanks, Natasje and Sohrab! Of course, they expect the same even in adulthood. Go figure!

As a family man, one indulged in a bit of Xmas. Of course, we had a Father Xmas who popped in around breakfast time. —>

He was a familiar character who also put in an appearance as the Easter bunny later in the new year. He was a magic bunny who laid eggs even up in the chandelier in the lounge and on top of the window pelmets. How did he ever get up there? Hopped, of course!

Fun aside, these were escapist moments from the war zone of being on duty at Groote Schuur Hospital over the festive season. There are those who would have you believe that South African violence only started in 1994. Endemic violence long preceded it; it’s apartheid’s worst legacy!

That’s why I enjoyed being out there with nature, family and good friends. My eternal gratitude goes out to so many of you who made memorable those wonderful occasions. Maybe we will relive some of those moments in 2020 when we meet up. Stay well!

[Part 2 will follow soon!]


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