Christmas in South Africa

by Taylor W.

It has been three months in South Africa, three months since my first 12-hour Intercape bus ride from Joberg to Upington as I pulled closer to my new home. As my wide eyes took in the muted browns and greens of that dusty landscape, I felt prepared for a new season of openness in my life. No matter what I was expecting or what advice I had been given, South Africa was going to reveal itself in ways that were completely beyond my preconceptions. The bus pulled into Upington’s Intercape station, and I stepped into a period of wide newness and great dependency.

I am convinced that three months is inherently a weird amount of time, but ask me what six months feels like, and I will surely be singing the same tune. And while I thought that me titling this first chapter Be Open on a clean page and closing the book for three months had settled it, I have come slowly to reexamine that first chapter, this time with a bit more honesty. Including the previously unwritten subtitle, this first part now reads Be Open; Do Everything Right, and the World Will Bend to Your Will. Now, it takes up so much more of the page. It’s very inconvenient.

I absolutely want to honor the opening that has happened in me since arriving in Upington. It takes some fortitude to have life made completely new just as it takes fortitude to have the American that you’re graciously hosting present you with a dinner of essentially raw chicken.* With all of the opening, however, was this lurking expectation that I was going to make this year happen for myself, and that while, inevitably, days would feel unsettled and free-floating, with some determination, all of that could be smoothed away. I would excel in Afrikaans if I studied hard enough, and I would find my place here if I made enough of an effort. By Christmas, I kept telling myself. Three months is enough to find your footing.

Well, Geseende Kerswees, Christmas has finally arrived, and I am far less functional in Afrikaans than I would like to be. I do a bit (‘n bietjie) of studying each day (elke dag), but whenever I am feeling over-confident, the fast-talking, Afrikaans soap opera, Binnelanders, reminds me that I am still completely dependent on subtitles, both when viewing that show and in most daily interactions. People are still graciously bringing me along in so many ways. Last night, Auntie Charmaine brought me along to her huge family’s Christmas Eve celebration, and among the decorations was a sign that said, “The miracle of Christmas: We are never alone”.

And I haven’t been.

All along, I was harboring this conviction that if anything decent was going to happen here, I must be the one to make it happen by trying hard enough and by being good enough—that the ultimate responsibility for this year rests with me. This Christmas season, I am reminded that the beautiful and the grace-filled has not happened because I have earned it. This year is South Africa, my YAGM year, but this, too, is life, and when before has everything in my life made sense by Christmas? God operates outside of my arbitrary timelines. I can do only what I am able and trust the rest to other hands. The world is not here to bend to my will, and I’m slowly realizing, neither was the world I came from—a place that felt deceivingly more manageable.

Yesterday afternoon, my host mom Sissy called me into the living room and surprised me with a 3-foot Christmas tree, leaning against the couch. “Will you decorate it for us?” she asked, and her 3-year-old son Stanton and I went through the universal struggles of uncooperative lights and an untrustworthy tree-stand, trying to make it perfect. She arranged for an Aunty to bring that tree over to our house so that I felt more grounded during this sunny Christmastime. That felt like really blessed timing.


* My host mom Sissy very politely asked me “Is this how you people eat it?”, and I kept replying “Yes!”, thinking that she was commenting on my great breading techniques. I finally looked over and saw her very concerned face and the blood squirting out from her fork.


A “Quiet”Christmas

If you are wondering what the Christmas season is like in South Africa, here is a reflection from Joe, written while he waited for the arrival of Christmas:

December: Quiet, relaxed, open, relationships, singing, dancing, waiting, Jesus. These are a few words that have been mulling through my mind during this past month as I have been preparing for the Christmas season. This December has been unlike any other in my life. Most of South Africa is on Holiday, not because of Christmas but because it is the end of the year. Schools and Creches are closed due to summer break, businesses closing, waiting for the New Year. I have found myself with a lot of time on my hands, time I do not always know what to do with. Although I try to fill it with friends, excursions to new parts of Mabopane, or spending time with my host family, there is always time left to fill. This Christmas will be different. I do not know what I am doing or where I am going. It does not feel like Christmas to me. I have to constantly remind myself to do my Daily Advent devotions, or to listen to Christmas music, which I love so dearly. There is rarely exchanging of gifts, and barely any Christmas music (When there is, its always about snow. Kinda funny when its 90 degrees outside). But the absence of an “American”/”Western” Christmas has forced me to ponder this season. Not necessarily what I miss, but the meaning, what is important. I do not know how or when, but I wait and pray for God to reveal himself on Christmas. To reveal himself through Jesus’ birth, but also through the people I encounter and the memories I make. A Quiet Christmas, One I will remember and cherish.

Tis the Season!

DSC_0182Keenan reflects upon the Christmas season in South Africa:

If I had any doubts about what was the most important thing in the life of your average South African before the month of December I don’t anymore. It has been an absolute blessing to witness the joy it brings to people here simply to be together with family.

December is just exactly that here in South Africa. People travel from all corners of the country to return home and be with family. Everyone comes together for no other reason then to be together. To cook together, to eat together, to drink together, and laugh together.

Today in the super market I was reminded of the consumer society culture I come from in America as people crowded into every isle of the store. The difference though was that these people weren’t crowding into a store to get the best Black Friday deal, or the latest great technology to put under the Christmas tree. Everyone was filling their trollies to the brim with food to share with family.

So this holiday season I challenge those reading back in the states, or anywhere else in the world, to truly remember the reason for the season. Enjoy the little things that surround you in this time, and hold onto your loved ones a little tighter then you usually do.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

One of the many ways Jen takes in the world is through her camera lens

One of the many ways Jen takes in the world is through her camera lens

Jen writes about expectations and Christmas in another part of the world:

It’s a scorching 34°, the sun is shining, summer is just heating up…perfect timing to take out the snowflake-covered Christmas decorations. Wait, what? Snowflakes? Snowmen? Picturesque cottages all nestled in snow and pine trees? With all this heat I doubt even a snow cone would last very long.

All I can say is I feel incredibly sorry for the poor man in a fur-lined Santa suit as I’m sweating in my shorts. He deserves and raise and an ice cream cone.

When I came halfway around the world I guess I expected things to be a lot more different. Don’t get me wrong, South Africa is incredibly unique and vibrant in its diverse cultures, long history, breath taking landscapes, and mix of languages. But no matter how far away it is, Westernization still plays a huge role in modern culture here. It can be seen in the music on the radio (the same I blasted this summer around CA), the hair extensions that look like smooth European hair, face bleach creams, and, yes, even the visions of Christmas. Pictures of snow and pine trees for the holiday sure didn’t originate here, that’s for sure. Oh, and I still haven’t heard anything about Kwanza.

While as Westerners we may not have planned for our culture to be broadcast around the world that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. There are always gains to be had from learning about other cultures, but what about when it is one-sided? We rarely see African movies/music/stories/photos (other than those of hungry children and safari animals). What is lost in the process?

There’s no way change what’s happening but we can make it more even—to take the effort to listen to what’s happening around the world, hear their stories, learn from their experiences.

Maybe it’s our turn to return the favor and simply pay attention.