Christmas holidays in South Africa

For my overseas friends particularly.. (By Bev Mortimer). 

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Not in South Africa where many thoughts are only on sunny skies and beaches.

The mass exodus from the inner cities and the rush to the coast or to holiday resorts takes place mid December: toll roads to the coast or game reserves are crammed with cars, taxis and buses full of people on their annual migration, akin to the anual flock to the French Riviera in July -August.

Being the hottest time of the year most South Africans in the vicinity of Johannesburg take their annual leave at this period, which coincides with the end of the South African year school holidays commencing in the first week of December.

But from the 15 December, things really hot up or die down, depending where you’re at: many companies close or leave a few skeleton staff to man the show. And for those people who choose not to escape the concrete jungles, they become suddenly aware of a lack of business activity, except in the department stores.

Telephones at companies go unanswered, building contracts go on hold, electricians, insurance brokers, lawyers and one’s local doctor are nowhere to be found, while even municipalities run at snail’s place, and you’re greeted, often by an answering machine with: “Season’s Greetings! Contact us again on 15 January,” or thereabouts. (Of course, emergency services still run and your local doctor’s voice message directs you to another doctor in an emergency.)

South Africans who stay in Johannesburg and other cities and who celebrate Christmas Day, spend it in a variety of ways: church in the morning and the opening of presents for many, then its either picnics in the parks or having traditional English luncheons or smorgasbords at top restaurants in the city, or spending the day with family and friends at home cooking up a storm of traditional English or local fare.

For those of other religious denominations, the plethora of holidays for them is also a boon and a chance to relax and join in to many of the holiday activities.

The festive season, particularly Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is a time for families in South Africa – with parents and grandparents attaching as much importance to it as Americans do for Thanksgiving. It’s an annual time to bond and catch up, to rekindle old memories, formulate new plans and enjoy the activities at home or in the surrounds.

A favourite for those who don’t like to cook is to have a barbecue, aka braaivleis, in the back garden or on the patio – with the men all congregated together cooking the meat and drinking their favourite beer, while the women make salads and dish out Christmas fare, including your English variety: cold turkey and ham (cooked the day before), Christmas pudding and cake, mince pies, melting chocolates, dripping ice cream, colourful crackers and streamers in the baking hot sun.

This is often followed by a late afternoon nap and television, while the excited, boisterous children play with their new toys or splash madly around in swimming pools.

And when Christmas is over, people who love to shop shop can do so at leisure with oodles of parking now available, watch endless sport on television (especially the men), go to the cinemas or take day trips out into the country and plan for New Year’s eve parties.

The migratory flock either go to game reserves, health and country resorts, or waterland playgrounds to enjoy a host of outdoor amusements – from safaris and animal sight seeing, to playing golf, swimming, fishing and 4×4 rallies – or they head off to a coastal resort, the most popular being Cape Town and Durban. Though these days the idyllic village of St Francis Bay is also an ‘in place’ to be.

Some inhabitants of coastal cities, while welcoming the increased money brought in by these foreign invaders, often shudder at the thought of crowds at their local haunts and what they consider ‘private turf’, since the  visitors daily cram onto beaches and into local restaurants and pubs. As a result, some coastal dwellers flee elsewhere.

A popular destination for those who can afford it is to fly off to Mauritius, Mocambique and the Seychelles, or to Europe to family or friends, and come back when the intruders have gone. As an ex-Durbanite I can empathise with the coastal dwellers – I used to escape to my parents tranquil farm in the Waterberg.

However, for many poor people and lonely old folk in South Africa, as in other parts of the world, there is not only no escape, but no luxuries at this festive time, and they go without. The poor and needy rely on handouts from charitable organisations, while for many elderly folk, Christmas Day is spent just like any other day though some do strive to get to church.

Those with families spend New Year partying at home with close friends and watching shows on TV.  But the younger set hit the clubs and pubs where special music events are annually lined up, to party throughout the night before crawling home after 6 the next morn … or much later..

At the coast many youngsters are to be found congregating on the beaches from 4 am though the strict laws prohibiting  drinking in public and not allowing noisy music, plus hunger pangs, usually gets them to drift back home.

Then after all the New Year festivities, plus all the fun and sun, the tanned hordes pack up and leave for places like Johannesburg and Pretoria that slowly start livening up again.

And the coastal business people who have been swamped with crowds of people and ringing tills, for at least a fortnight , take their weary bodies off to the emptier beaches and enjoy the last of the golden days of summer.

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