You Can thank the Cape Argus (probably aided by Charles Dickens) for Christmas as we know it in Cape Town. It was a slow growth, but one that can be traced easily enough in the newspaper files. Book after book by Charles Dickens, filled with the Christmas spirit, had been arriving in Cape Town during the ’40’s and ’50’s of the last century. Yet it was not until 1859 that any Cape Town newspaper thought of wishing its readers a merry Christmas. There was no Christmas shopping rush, because the custom of giving presents had not become widely established. Thus, during the week before Christmas in 1859, only two advertisements with a Christmas flavor appeared in the Cape Argus-one suggesting French flower vases as presents, the other offering Westphalia hams for the Christmas dinner.
On December 24 that year the Cape Argus came out with a leading article discussing Cape Town’s apathy and pleading for a new outlook: “In accordance with the genial and timehonored custom of Old England, we wish our readers A MERRY CHRISTMAS. It must be confessed that in the Southern Hemisphere, with the thermometer standing at something like one hundred degrees, merriment is not precisely the condition either of mind or body which most readily associates itself with the idea of Christmas. [In 1859 Christmas week was “blazing, flaring, scorching, nose-blistering an<,i red-hot.”] When beef and turkey cannot be coaxed into keeping for longer than one night, and the recollection of plum pudding is distasteful, and the bare idea of mince pie and brandy throws one into a perspiration-it seems something like an unfeeling mockery to grasp your friend by the hand and hope he may have a merry Christmas.
“Seriously, Christmas at the Cape does lose much of the peculiar interest which attaches to it in northern climates. Certain it is that Christmas Day is lightly regarded here. We hope that we shall not be trespassing on very dangerous ground if we plead for the better observance of Christmas and urge the superiority of its claim to that of the unmeaning New Year’s Day. And so we heartily wish our readers a merry and hospitable Christmas.”
In the same issue the Cape Town Theater announced the first Christmas pantomime in South Africa-“The Babes in the Wood.” “Christmas will not pass over without an endeavor to keep up the good old English custom of good old English pantomime founded on one of the oldest ballads in the language,” advertised Mr. Sefton Parry, proprietor and manager. “An attempt of this kind upon so small a stage, with so many
disadvantages to contend against, may seem at first almost impracticable; but Mr. P. trusts to perseverance and determination to ensure success. The scenery, painted expressly for the occasion, is of the most gorgeous description; the masks, properties, and tricks are of unusual excellence; and the dresses all that money and good taste could secure.”
Christmas fare was plentiful and cheap. During that week in 1859, householders paid 30s. for a fattened pig and 9s. for a sucking pig. A fowl cost Is., a turkey 4s. 6d., and oranges were 7s. a 100. It was not until twelve years later, in 1871, that Christmas trees appeared in the shops. One leading store transformed its whole fancy department into a “Bazaar and Christmas Tree.” Another shopkeeper drew up a special advertisement headed with a woodcut of the Royal Arms. It read: “Oh, Pal Oh, Ma! Do go and pay Mr. Long a visit and buy me some toys-they are so fine, so unique, so instructive. Oh do, dear Pal We will be such good children hereafter.”
The campaign by The Argus was showing results at last. Christmas had come to Cape Town.