Summer Christmas festivities in South Africa are an exuberant combination of sea holidays, family fun and gourmet meals. No matter if your family opens presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning and whether dinner is served around midday or in the evening, South Africans know how to enjoy Christmas and make the most of the long summer days.
Many of the approximately 23 000 South Africans who emigrate each year to, among others, the United States, Canada, Australia and the Middle East exchange the joy of a summer Christmas for a winter Christmas or for new Christmas traditions that leave one longing to the warmth and hospitality of your own country.
Danie, who has lived in Dubai for six years and works in the hospitality industry, says that Christmas is not celebrated there. They must work every year over the Christmas season, and on top of that there are no Christmas lights in the streets and there is no sign of the traditions we love so much. ‘We usually take a day off during the festive season and gather for dinner. Each expat brings a recipe from home and we try to recreate something from everyone’s traditional Christmas celebrations,’ he says. In Arab countries like Dubai that do not celebrate Christmas at all for religious reasons, it can be especially difficult for South Africans to celebrate Christmas.
The United States is a very different story. Most of the country is a winter wonderland in December, with characters such as Santa Claus and deer playing a very prominent role in the celebrations. Louise recently married an American and moved to Texas. This year will be her first traditional American Christmas, and no matter how beautiful the snow is, she longs for long summer days with the smell of sunscreen and games on the beach. She feels trapped in her home. ‘I was already longing home, and the more we got involved with the Christmas planning, the more I realised that I really wanted to bring in a South African element. So, we met each other halfway: I fully accepted the Thanksgiving traditions, while Christmas will have a more South African angle with leg of lamb, beef tongue, copper penny carrot salad and my grandmother’s milk tart,’ she explains enthusiastically.
Sometimes it is not only cultural boundaries that make Christmas celebrations difficult for expats, but also language boundaries. For South Africans in South Korea, it is good to know that this country is one of the most accessible in the East for Christmas traditions. ‘Of course, that doesn’t mean you can get involved in their celebrations. But I see it as my duty to study their Christmas words and traditions to make sure I can wish them a merry Christmas. Sometimes something that small makes one feel more at home,’ explains Magriet, who has been teaching in Seoul for two years. She says she has a Korean and a South African Christmas every year. ‘I know a few expats in town and we usually get together on Christmas Eve to sing Silent Night and Somerkersfees and to stage a Christmas play. It reminds me of Christmas plays with my nephews and nieces when I was a kid.’
The festive season can be very lonely for South Africans abroad. Therefore, it is important to cling to the traditions and customs of your home country, but also to be willing to experience and learn new traditions so that you can assimilate and bond with your new environment.
This post is also available in: Afrikaans