Christmas in America means warm mittens and hot chocolate, snowballs and sledding, wood fires and fresh pine boughs. But because the southern hemisphere’s seasons are reversed, Christmas in Africa means sunshine and swimming, beaches and barbecues.
As much as we love warm weather and lounging poolside, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas to us. On top of the heat, for the last few days it has been rain, rain, and more rain in Johannesburg. It has been so wet that one of the goldfish we are caring for during our housesitting jumped clear out of its pond in a confused attempt to swim free. With this kind of weather, it’s been hard to feel the usual Christmas spirit. So we worked a little improvised magic to set the mood.
Before anything else could be done, we needed the proper background music. Stores in South Africa don’t hypnotize you with Christmas tunes the way American stores do, so it had been a relatively music-free holiday season. But one of my Christmas-crazy friends sent me a few Tony Bennett songs over email, and Lea set up an appropriate Pandora station that we blasted through the house. With “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” behind us, we about had our senses fooled.
Now it was time to decorate. What we lacked in raw materials, we made up for in panache. Instead of an evergreen tree, we used the pillar-esque chimney in the center of our ultra-modern living room. Lashing a bent coat hangar to the pillar, Lea hung two of my Smartwools up as old-fashioned — albeit slightly stinky — Christmas stockings. We covered the “mantle” with tealights and stacked presents around the candles. It wasn’t quite popcorn and cranberries, but it felt like a celebration.
Because of the warm weather, Lea encountered an unusual challenge in her Christmas decorating: making sure no African wildlife entered the house on the evergreen sprigs she collected from our garden. Here she is showing off a tiny green praying mantis that was hiding among the camofluage. Apparently not all bugs are bigger in Africa!
After preparing our house for the big day, we left for a Christmas Eve dinner with our friends Ran and Anriette, whom we had had over for Thanksgiving. The Christmas menu — prepared by our favorite local Israeli chef — featured leg of lamb, rice and lentils, hummus, tomato and goat cheese salad, butternut squash, potatoes, eggplant puree, and lots of South African wine. The dessert course featured our own homemade shortbread cookies, a caramel peach cake and a rich chocolate and fruit medley. We were stuffed.
At some point before we were all groggy with satisfaction, our exceptional hosts toasted our engagement, and we their hospitality. After dinner, we shared gifts — I got a shnazzy new stovetop espresso maker — and told stories. Anriette also broke out her collection of exotic liquers. Among the Limoncello and Brandy was a small glass flask of a liquor so overpoweringly industrial that we might have used it to top off our gas tank. The Afrikaners call it “Witblitz”, meaning “white lightning.” A perfect complement to the Christmas crackers!
The highlight of the evening, however, was the lighting of a uniquely African Christmas tree. It is handmade from twisted wire and glass beads, a popular form of South African street art. The kids decorated it with ornaments, including decorated seed pods from a jacaranda tree. When the candles were lit, it felt like Christmas… even to us Americans.