Considering Christmas in Africa
Stepping into a shopping mall in South Africa at this time of year is an odd experience as Christmas carols about snow fill our ears, while decorations that were invented to liven up a cold and dark winter adorn every surface with men dressed in thick Santa suits trying to shade themselves from our sweltering African summer sun. Most of the traditions during the festive season are ones that we have imported from elsewhere and don’t seem to fit into a South African context and, perhaps, it is time that we begin to celebrate the festive season with our own traditions that are specifically African in nature.
While Christmas breaks the monotony of the winter months in the Northern hemisphere, in South Africa it appears in the middle of our hot and sunny months when schools are on holiday and the end of the calendar year approaches. It provides an intersection of reasons to celebrate in our country and yet we have not been able to shirk off those customs that have been adopted from the North.
These customs involve characters and figures with which we are so familiar when colouring them in children automatically reach for the peach coloured crayon. Should we not, instead, be using this time of year to encourage children to idealise characters that promote and mirror the diversity in our country and, perhaps, replacing these western archetypes for ones based on African tales could play a role in deconstructing the images and characters that we see leading up to Christmas.
If we stop to consider the stories of Santa clause, they do not translate to a South African setting where most families don’t have chimneys for him to climb down and many children will not be waking up to stockings filled with presents whether naughty or nice. Our country would never be home to Christmas snowmen and, while we have an abundance of animals to choose from, reindeer are certainly not among them. There should be a mindfulness as to the conventions that we blindly follow simply because they are considered ‘traditions’ rather than proactively working towards constructing societal norms that are not based on our colonial past.
In more recent years there has been a shift towards viewing this time of year as a commercial holiday rather than a religious one with sparkly Christmas trees having predominantly replaced the nativity story. Devout Christians should, of course, be given respect as to their desire to commemorate a holy day, however, in a multicultural country whose people are diverse in their faiths we also have to respect that, perhaps, our national celebrations should be secular leaving religious celebrations to the discretion of the individual, which would allow for the creation of a ‘South African Holiday’. There is potential to usurp the usurped and claim this time as a chance to celebrate the cultures and heritages of this country rather than continuing to adopt the traditions of Europe or America.
In the US, Kwaanza was created in 1966 with the intention of creating a holiday that would celebrate the cultural heritage of African-Americans. Although the celebration seems to conceptualize Africa as a homogenous society where everyone speaks Swahili, its creation did allow for the establishment of new celebrations in America during the festive season that promote African ideas of community and sharing. The South African context is significantly different to the one from which Kwanzaa was born; however, a recrafting of our festive season could, similarly, occur in order to shift the paradigm to a more context appropriate and racially representative image.
Changing the holiday may seem far too idealistic in our capitalist driven society where western customs are used to sell products at Christmas time but we could each begin to take responsibility for the way we celebrate and, ultimately, have a greater sensibility about from where and when traditions come. Not all traditions are outwardly racist but many of them do simply continue to promote a western centred rhetoric and, therefore, changing the way we celebrate the festive season could provide an opportunity for us to begin to create traditions that are African and our own.
Illustration: Thulisizwe Mamba
Writing: Anthea Taylor