Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos…
Yes, it’s December, and Christmas is coming. But this is Africa. In summer. Which means the guy roasting the chestnuts on an open fire is about to destroy the nature reserve next door, and Jack Frost is a corgi who hates visitors and keeps biting them in the face, and the choir singing the carols is performing for a hall containing just nine pensioners (hiding from Jack Frost) because the other 50million South Africans are in traffic, and the folks dressed up like Eskimos are saying, “Look, I don’t mind wearing the costume and handing out flyers in the mall, but it’s ‘Inuit’, not ‘Eskimo’, OK?” and the store manager is saying, “Whatever, Malcolm X, but if you don’t do it I’ve got a queue of people who are willing to spend their Saturday inside a sweat-bleached Styrofoam head for 10 bucks an hour, so suck it up or hit the road.”
I must confess that I’ve never got the point of Christmas in South Africa. Maybe that’s because I’ve never really understood it anywhere. One of my earliest memories of the day is tinged with both glee and unease. The presents were extraordinary – you just got things for no reason whatsoever – but why were the adults having a birthday party for a dead person they’d never met? It seemed macabre, like baking a cake, putting on party hats, singing Happy Birthday, and then saying, “You know, if he hadn’t been killed 2000 years ago he’d probably have loved this.”
Later, I was taught the symbolism of the day but by then my literal ear was getting in the way. When we sang Away in a Manger, I was spellbound as “the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”. Could the baby really remove his own head and bed it down for the night, like placing a volleyball in a nest of straw? Then again, couldn’t gods do whatever they wanted?
Just as confusing was the Rownyon Virgin in Silent Night. All was calm, all was bright. That part made sense. But then: “Rownyon Virgin, mother and child.” Why were mother and child being visited by an abstinent lady from Rownyon? And where was Rownyon? It sounded faintly British and yet it clearly had to be within donkey-range of Bethlehem.
I assumed that Mer was something sordid. Like essence of mer-person
Surrealism haunted the wings of the nativity plays. Why would the wise men bring gold, Frankenstein and Mer? What was Mer? And why was it spelled “myrrh”, which, obviously, a sensible person would pronounce as “mire-gghh”? When I asked adults what it was, they hurried through their explanations with the same shifty-eyed, ask-your-mother haste they usually used when hiding horrible truths from me, so I assumed that Mer was something sordid. Like essence of mer-person, acquired by harpooning a mermaid and her merman as they frolicked in the briny, pushing them through rollers on the pulping deck of a mer-trawler, and tapping off the priceless Mer that oozed out of their herring-like remains.
I’ve outgrown most of this, but I still don’t understand why we do a northern European Christmas in Africa. Do we hate Jesus that much? Because why else would we subject ourselves and those we love to a ritual that ends with everyone vowing never to do it ever again and determined to sever all ties with family forever?
But still it goes on. We buy things we don’t particularly like for people we don’t really know, and gather around a table where meat sweats fat and where disconsolate flies commit suicide in half-empty bottles of tepid sparkling wine. We set fire to the pudding because more fire is exactly what we need when it’s 40 degrees outside, as the toe-jam aroma of soft cheese mingles with the umami tang of the sweat that’s pouring down everyone’s back.
Then again, maybe I’m just grinchy because I’ve just reached Peak Ho Ho Ho.
I’m not a religious person but even a heathen has his limits when he sees humanity’s loveliest ideals co-opted and made cynical by advertisers; when hope, empathy, kindness, gentleness and the possibility of rebirth are bought by pimps and used to sell televisions plastered with Kardashian buttocks. Militant atheists say religion is insane but for me true insanity is a plastic, nylon-bearded creature riding a neon-lit animatronic reindeer, ordering me to buy rubbish to celebrate the birth of a carpenter who preached simplicity.
So how would the carpenter have celebrated his birthday? Well for starters he would have known how to entertain in the heat: a tent, loose-fitting robes, a meal of flatbread and humus, washed down with tea. And presents? Perhaps nothing more than a conversation with friends. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.