Tuesday, 14 December 2010

We don't *really* do Christmas...

I usually get tonnes of presents in the post at this time of the year. They come from everywhere… the US, the UK, Venezuela, Italy, Germany, France and I usually get a card from a dear friend in Iceland too. Now what amuses me is that all my non-Muslim friends know that I don’t celebrate Christmas, but they send the gifts and cards anyway. And then I feel terrible and compelled to go out and get each of them something in return.

Thing is, Christmas is not a big deal in SA. Sure, every store is decked from top to bottom with all kinds of decorative apparel and there’s Boney M or Mariah Carey playing in the background… but to most here in SA, its advent means the beginning of Summer holidays where schools close for around 6 weeks (they closed last week Friday and only re-open in the second week of January) and everyone goes down to the coast or takes a few weeks off from work to lie around at the pool side or on the beach, attend parties, have picnics or troll about in shopping malls.

Needless to say, my first Christmas in London was a real culture shock. It was like our Christmas but on steroids... then mixed with amphetamines. People decorated their homes with little fairy lights on their windows and little Santas on the roof and huge Christmas trees in their homes. Some even competed for the best lighting displays outside their homes... most of them being quite pretty to look at. In Europe, it was much the same. It feels like Christmas, so much so that everyone usually wishes everyone a “Happy Christmas” even amongst some of the Muslims, Jews and Hindus…

At first this surprised me a lot… I mean it’s not like I go around wishing all my gift-giving Christian friends a blessed Eid Mubarak… but then it became interesting to see how other “western” Muslims interact with their societies and how they interpret events that they share with others even though it’s not really a part of their culture or religion.

And then, over time it occurred to me that to most people, Christmas has become more a part of their culture in that it has more to do with the culture of the country then it has to do with religion. And yes, of course, there are still many that observe it on a religious and spiritual level where attending mass, praying and worshipping etc. is the focal point of their beliefs and the day itself represents much more then exchanging presents and indulging in a day-long feast. But to a lot of other people, that’s exactly what it is… it’s the culture of Christmas and everyone’s invited.

In SA, things are very different… for example, people very rarely wish each other a “Merry Christmas” (we say *merry* y’all, the way it’s supposed to be said :P). None of my South African Christian friends have EVER wished me a Merry Christmas… in fact, I can’t even recall them telling each other (although I’m sure they did many times before)… yet in other countries, it almost felt like the Muslims were celebrating it too, that’s how often they said it. I remember the first time I came across another Muslim who wished me a “Happy Christmas” like it was the most natural thing on earth and reacting on my first instinct I was like “Why? We don’t celebrate Christmas”.

Yes, SA is very different in that way… people don’t put up lights outside their homes and they don’t sing carols in the streets (unless they’re striking for more wages) and even the most staunched Christians keep their Christmas under wraps… going to church and having lunch with their families etc. Our Christmas culture has less to do with Christmas and more to do with enjoying some downtime in the summer by spending an excessive amount of money shopping, quality time with our families, going to the beach, having braai’s, swimming on these hot humid days and using New Years Eve as an excuse to either party the night away or make empty promises with the renewed hope that the next year will actually be the one that's better than all the rest. And maybe this culture robs some of the Christians from that Christmas-sy atmosphere and experience, but they don’t seem to be too bothered about that.

Well where ever you are and whatever your beliefs, Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays!


  1. That sounds so cool-receiving prezzies from all over the world. I wish my Christian friends Merry Christmas, & I've received, & sent, Christmas cards to close friends on a few occasions.

  2. Actually, people do put up lights. In my neighbourhood, it's not uncommon at all this time of year.

    It kind of reminds me of "Home Improvement" (the sitcom), where Tim would always try to outdo his neighbours with extravagant Christmas lights and decorations at his home.

    But you're right that it's more about holiday and time off. I think a common phrase is not "Merry Christmas" - but rather "Seasons Greetings"; and talk about the "Festive Season".

    Perhaps that's to be politically correct - but in any case, i appreciate getting time off now at year end - even though i try to avoid places where the masses will be.

    I think in popular Western culture - which we've imported here - CHristmas is always portrayed as white and snowy and cold - because it's winter over there (America and European).

    We obviously don't have that kind of atmosphere because we're in the middle of summer...so perhaps you just associate "Christmas Spirit" with that winter weather - because that's all we see on TV and the movies of Christmas.

  3. I find e-Cards sent in bulk-mails to all my contacts keeps the Christmas spirit alive, at least on my Outlook Express ;)

  4. It's the only time when I see "Peace on Earth - Good Will Toward All" is celebrated with signs to that effect on people's front yards. Throw in colored lights and presents -- what's not to like about the holiday?

  5. Mezzaterra - Its become the norm with me now. I always get my presents in the second week of Dec, and by the third week I'm rushing around posting all my guilt-laden gifts too lol! Ironically, I don't buy gifts for my Christian family and they don't give us gifts or expect gifts from us either... just my friends overseas - and thats why I say that for them, Christmas is more a part of their social culture than it is a part of ours.

    dreamlife - Yeah I know, I've seen 1 or 2 put lights up here and I know in CT its a thing they do (more for competitive reasons than it is for celebrating Jesus's birth)... but even so, it is NOTHING compared to the European countries (and I imagine the US too). And yeah you're right, the fact that our Christmas is in Summer does kinda take away from that "spirit" and atmosphere thats in the air.

    Kaloo - I get at least 2 dozen fancy cards in the post and a bunch of gifts (jewelry etc) so I dont think my friends would appreciate e-cards lol ;P

    LL - Its true, people are more mellowed out etc. And its definitely most people's favourite time of the year. But like I said, compared to Europe & the UK, Christmas here in SA is less about religion etc. and more about Summer holidays since it's peak Summer here. I also find that Christmas in the UK and Europe is also very much a part of the social culture & like dreamlife pointed out... the atmosphere is different because of the winter snow etc... so one gets that "Christmas Feel" like you'd expect to, whereas here in SA, there's no atmosphere because almost everyone's on the beach :P Hope you had a great Christmas!