Christmas Day in Africa

The Nganga (witchdoctor) Christmas Day visit to our house

Christmas Day in Africa

Christmas begins, officially, in America, on Thanksgiving with the arrival of Santa Claus, on a red sleigh, pulled by a team of reindeer at Macy’s Department Store at the end of the New York Macy’s Day Parade.  Frantic shopping begins at midnight getting an early start to Black Friday which continues on to Cyber Monday.  The count down is on.

But Christmas really is splendid here in Oregon, where the nights are long with bright star light, yet the days are often dark and stormy.  The lights of the Christmas tree twinkle all the brighter and the smells of cedar and the spoils of the busy kitchen meld with the fire burning. 

Christmas Day in Africa

An African Christmas was rather different. The season was heralded by Christmas cards that we strung around all four walls of the sitting room and on into the dining room some years.  They depicted snow scenes for the most part. We’d never seen snow. (Mom still sent her Christmas cards out surface mail the beginning of October when she lived in Vancouver at the end of her life.  We’d get ours in Oregon four days later.)

In Rhodesia, our Christmas season didn’t start until twelve days before Christmas.  We kept our trees up twelve days after Christmas if they lasted that long.  We propped a deciduous tree in a bucket supported by rocks and it shed its leaves in no time.  But we decorated it with glass balls, tinsel, and blobs of cotton wool from the surgery for snow.  We plaited crepe paper streamers in red and green and strung them from corner to corner of the dining room and the sitting room along with concertina paper balls and bells.

Father Christmas arrived each year in various contraptions: a cocopan (a side tipping trolley running on rails for carrying ore from the mine) for instance at the Globe and Phoenix Mine party.  Many parties were in fancy dress.  I went as a fairy and a princess.  When I got older I went as the wife of Jack Sprat who could eat no fat with my best friend, Wendy, who was tall and skinny.  I went as a moth flying around a boy candle.  (that must have been my mother’s idea).  Dad was the doctor on every company’s medical benefit society and so we got invited to all these company parties. We were quite partied out by the time Christmas really came around.

Christmas Day along with Good Friday were the only two days in the year that Dad did not have to attend Sick Parade.  Native mine workers  came to celebrate at our house after the morning Christmas Tea at the Hospital.  The central figure was the Nganga (witch doctor).  Masked and painted, he danced to drums whipping up to a frenzy on our big lawn as an acknowledgement of Dad’s good work. We didn’t see Dad’s work there:  he was a mystery to us.

In return, Mom would hand out pockets of oranges and packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes. (Yes, Dad smoked too in those days!)  Then my older brother’s best friend would arrive.  He was Jewish and always joined us for Christmas lunch.  There was always, of course, a gift under the tree for him from Father Christmas,  as well as a pocket of oranges for each of the servants, extra rations, and second hand clothing for their children on the reserve.

Finally we took our places at the dining room table, pulled our Christmas crackers, donned our paper hats, read our fortunes and tucked into the Christmas roast and plum pudding.  We needed to be done by 2 pm so Dad could officiate, barring medical emergencies, at the mine compound boxing tornament while we all settled down to a well earned afternoon rest.

The Hostital Christmas Tea is described in Blog May 7, 2010 A Present at the Hospital Christmas Day Tea (a novel exerpt).

3 Comments

  • Betty Goolsby

    Reply Reply December 30, 2010

    Your wonderful description of an African Christmas is almost exactly like our Christmases in England…..minus the visit from the Ngangas! I had never seen crepe paper circles crossing the room in Texas for our Christmas celebrations, however we did do those in the classrooms for other holiday parties. Crackers were great fun, and the formal dress always made it feel extra special. It must have been strange with the hot weather outside and Dreaming of a White Christmas must have sounded pretty strange to you all! I can’t believe your mom gave out Luckies for Christmas. I did get one orange and some mixed nuts in the bottom of my stocking. There was nothing expensive in the stocking like they do now days…no Ipods, diamond rings, watches, or video games….just trinkets from Santa. I do love Father Christmas’ beautiful suit…so elegant and regal! Happy New Year, Diana!!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 30, 2010

      Betty,
      Yes, this piece is really of the period. Everybody smoked in those days, expectations were realistic and we were happy with these small tokens from the heart in the spirit of Christmas. We looked forward to making our decorations, and you’ve got it we dressed for every occasion (keeping our standards up no matter what!) We’ve adopted our daughter in law’s tradition of getting a pr. of new pyjamas on Christmas Eve which we lounge around in all day on Christmas Day. And I got this new computer from the boys for Christmas. A show of continued faith that I’ll deliver on the book soon. They are suffering along with long distance SOS tutorials having switched from pc to Mac.
      Diana

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 31, 2010

      Betty,
      Oranges, (along with tomatoes and guavas which dont keep as well) which are high in vitamin C were introduced into the mine workers rations after Dad’s arrival. Single mine workers unaccustomed to cooking for themselves wouldn’t cook the pumpkin and cabbage supplied. Scurvy was prevalent. This was a simple and effective solution. The Native traditional diet consisted of mealie meal (thick grits) molded in the tips of ones fingers into a ball and dipped into a meat gravy. Dad promoted oranges at every opportunity.
      Diana

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