Christmas on the Farms of South Africa

in the kitchen, christmas eve
Image by A.J. Kandy via Flickr

“The Lady of the house will hand around cakes and tarts.” The last line of Hofmeyr’s song is by no means an anticlimax: cakes and tarts were regarded as great luxuries among the farming community in South Africa little more than fifty years ago. The population of the land was predomi­nantly rural and very conservative in outlook. The customs connected with the celebration of religious holidays and festi­vals had changed little through the centuries. The cakes and tarts were always part of the traditional Christmas or New Year meals as the Boer farmers had known them for more than a hundred years. The small, round sweet cakes were made of rolled dough cut into shapes with a cup or a glass. The recipe for this luxury undoubtedly came from Holland with the eilrliest settlers, for Dutch emigrants to America have left behind them the custom of baking similar “cookies” on important days. The tarts were small pastries; they are often called handtertjies in modem speech to distinguish between them and the much larger tarts which had to be cut into slices, such as melktert. They were made of rolled pastry cut into circles and filled with jam. The edges of the pastry were stuck together by means of a beaten egg mixture and then crimped with a fork.

Different shapes were sometimes used to add variety to these two basic luxuries. Occasionally the dough would be cut out in the shape of a man; cracknel pastry in plaited shapes was also baked and served with the cakes and tarts. Plaited pastries have long formed part of Christmas and New Year meals; they can be traced back to the heathen feasts of our ancestors in Europe. They were symbolic offerings to the gods. When they were straight they represented plaits of hair, and when circular they symbolized the sun and its ,rays, or the bracelet with which the Germanic tribes buried their dead.

Throughout this story we are dealing with the Christmas customs of the farming communities living in the interior of South Africa-customs which were observed more than fifty years ago. Christmas to the rural Afrikaner was then much simpler than it tends to be today. Isolated from other influ­ences, the farmers and their families kept Christmas much as an ordinary Sunday, except that cakes and ginger beer­luxuries normally reserved for birthdays, weddings, and cele­brations-were available. Yet the history of Christmas goes back deep into the past.

December 25 and January 1 have always been important dates. History and legend make mention of the Feast ofTwelve Nights between our Christmas Day and January 6, the Feast of the Three Kings. Among our Germanic ancestors this pe­riod of merrymaking started on December 25 with the Mid­winter Feast, the day of rejoicing in honor of the gods of the fertile earth and in honor of the dead. On this day, cattle were slaughtered to provide meat for the feasting and nourishment for people who still had to face two more months of winter snow. The results of the winter sacrifices could now be seen: sun had ceased its southward wandering. Its rays were increasing in strength and the sap was beginning to rise al­most imperceptibly in the plants and trees. Some of our an­cestors seem to have celebrated this day in honor of the sun, a feast marking the winter solstice and the rebirth oflight. Offerings were also made to the spirits of fertility.

This time of fructification, these twelve sacred nights, has traces in the modern celebration of Christmas (Weih­nachten) in Germany. But such ancient celebrations were not confined to the Germanic tribes. The Romans, among whom Christianity began, celebrated December 25 as the last day of the Saturnalia Festival; later on, the same day concluded the feast in honor of Mithra, the Persian sun god, who was also worshiped in Rome.

Those who wish to preserve the religious simplicity of the Christian Christmas festival regret the tendency noticeable in the larger cities of the Union, where the holy day has become nothing more than a noisy holiday, entirely unconnected with the birth of Christ. For many commercial interests, Christmas a peak season; South Africa shares the internationalized Christmas and all its conventions with the Western world. The days before Christmas are regarded as having value only as shopping opportunities, while financial worries attached to providing lavish “traditional” Christmas entertainment tend to leave little room for peace and good will.

Half a century ago Christmas in the platt land was quite a different institution. In the strongly Calvinistic environment Christmas, in contrast to New Year’s Day, was observed as a quiet religious festival, usually marked by the celebration of Holy Communion. In many country areas this pattern remains essentially the same today, little changed even by the improved communications. Baking cakes for the family was originally more often associated with New Year than with Christmas, although in some areas it had been advanced to Christmas Eve. Whatever the choice, cakes were usually made only once a year. It was customary to give the children small presents bought from traveling salesmen or from a store. On Christmas Eve the children hung their stockings on the bedposts for the offerings of Father Christmas. This custom had reached even the most isolated parts of South Africa be­fore the turn of the century. Such influences on the Boer re­publics had come from the English community, which had brought most of the Christmas customs unchanged from Eng­land. The legend of Father Christmas found favor and soon became part of the celebration of December 25. Christmas Day itself would begin with the usual greetings between members of the family and their neighbors. Christmas wishes were exchanged personally-Christmas cards were never used. At about eleven o’clock a service would be held in the town churches; on the farms there were readings from the Bible, just as if it were an ordinary Sunday. After the serv­ice or the readings, the main Christmas meal was begun. For those families accustomed to celebrate New Year’s Day as the main festival the meal would be an ordinary one of meat, rice, vegetables, and perhaps some little luxury such as they might occasionally have on a Sunday. In its most elaborate form Christmas dinner-or rather “lunch”-included a stuffed tur­key or perhaps a sucking pig, followed by a Christmas pud­ding, the English plum pudding which in Afrikaans is simply poeding. Apart from visits to neighboring friends, the family celebration of Christmas ended with the meaL In the towns a more elaborate pattern of Christmas celebra­tions began to develop. Even in the most sedate communities the church bell would be rung from midnight on the night be­fore Christmas. Clusters of people went from house to house singing psalms and carols on Christmas Eve. Gradually more variety was introduced. Churches would erect Christmas trees, often decorated with fairy lights and hung with presents for the children. The German Christmas tree soon became an in­tegral part of the festivities in South Africa, in schools, at func­tions, and in the home. Father Christmas joined the festivities, usually handing out the presents.

It seems likely that it was in the Western Province that the celebration of Christmas first became more elaborate than that of an ordinary Sunday. One can still see the relatively complex Christmas celebration on Boland farms. Early in the week a Christmas tree is provided for the Colored farm work­ers; on it is a present for each one.

On Christmas Eve the family and relatives of the owner dress their own Christmas tree for themselves and their friends. Then the presents are handed around. The Christmas meal has quality and substance. After an uncooked sucking pig is displayed, an apple or an orange in its mouth, for the comments of the diners, a sizzling turkey is whisked from the oven to the table. The pig then takes the place of the turkey in the oven, and local wine is served. After the main part of the meal is over, the Christmas pudding is carried on and cut at the head of the table.

It was not until the fourth century that the East began to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25; the West fol­lowed this example a hundred years later. In respect of the de­velopment of culture and the change in customs, much has happened since that day became recognized as the day for re­joicing at the birth of Christ. South Africa shares with the Western world the same origin of her culture and customs. Beneath the familiar fabric of Christmas traditions as we know them today lie deep-rooted customs and conceptions, many of Which go back far in the history of man.

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