A Christmas in high summer (and on the beach)


It has been a long time coming this year - Christmas. It started, for me, three months ago, in Australia - where you'd think they might know better than to start frosting the shop windows, hanging angel hair on the synthetic trees and tinkling out sleighbell tunes in late September - just as Oz is heading for high summer.

Barbecues on the beach and sand in the Christmas pudding was what I left them looking forward to and why not - it's as good a way as any of getting through the festive season. Now I find myself in South Africa with the madness setting in good and proper. Even when it was only the first week in December, I couldn't get a seat on the train going to Johannesburg because everyone was off there on a Christmas shopping spree.

Then the schools started holding their end-of-year celebrations which means tiny black Marys and Josephs knocking on inn doors, accompanied by angels in silver foil wings and their mothers' high heels with small boys in the background in animal masks singing Adeste Fidelis in Xhosa. This is the beginning of the long summer vacation, and everybody who can afford it is off to the coast or the mountains. The fearful rains and hailstones of recent days were welcomed by the seaside people because they washed away all the evil-smelling algae that clogged up the rivers and which would have put the holiday-makers off their ice-cream and beach braais (the Afrikaans equivalent of a barbecue).

Not everyone goes away, of course. Nomonde, a neighbour in the township I'm staying in, buys her Christmas sheep at the market for about 250 rand (IR£30), about one quarter of what she earns per month as a cleaner at the local bank. One of her four sons slaughters it in the back yard and with the whole family home for the holidays - six in all, plus a niece she's rearing for her sister and a teenage girl she has rescued from an abusive foster mother - together with friends and neighbours, the sheep will just about get them through to the New Year.

Thabi, another neighbour, is going to Cape Town for Christmas, to stay with her sister and the rest of the family. She'll travel by minibus taxi and I hope she gets there safely. Road deaths hit a high each holiday here and the police have already started to operate a no-tolerance programme. The current drink-drive campaign carries the message: arrive alive. Some basic things are, it seems, the same the world over.

Car accidents aren't the only seasonal hazards. One recent weekend brought the usual increase in hospital admissions: boys and young men who have taken part in initiation ceremonies which have gone painfully wrong. Apart from infection of the family jewels, the other cause of illness is dehydration. Initiates are not allowed any water for seven days. Me, I'm trying not to get caught up in all this Christmas craziness. My present-buying rush is well over. In a major money-saving effort the Christmas parcel to Antigua was despatched surface mail - so long ago that I can't remember what I sent. The one for Manchester was wrapped in Santa Claus paper and left on top of the piano for collection.

The delivery, by hand, of the Sydney gifts, way back in September, scored a considerable number of Brownie points. The reason for this unusual degree of organisation is that, for the first time in 13 years, I'll be spending Christmas without any of my own family sharing it with me - though the enticing offer of chilled champagne by the pool, made by the South African relations, goes some way towards making up for this. Mind you, it's hard to ignore Christmas. During my nightly assault on the crossword - my local Eastern Cape paper is the Daily Despatch, famous for its one-time editor, Donald Woods, being banned for investigating Steve Biko's murder - my eye is regularly drawn towards the ads, some of them less seasonal than others.

Apart from the holly-decorated fridges and gift-wrapped sets of gardening tools, the paper carries other, more interesting ads. Last week, in the Personal column it was: Crutches - two for 10 rand. Yesterday, it was Tombstones - in a Variety of Colours and Designs. And today, there's a notice I particularly like: "Van Vurren's Stores regret that their Christmas Festive Party has been postponed until next May." Don't say you haven't been warned.

Mary Russell has been working on an APSO community radio project in South Africa.