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Christmas past

I mentioned to my Sunday School class in Dallas that I think I am the only one to have celebrated an upside down Christmas. The 25th December is midsummer in South Africa. We will all be in summer frocks and shorts.

But, we are all immigrants from England and Holland so the old traditions die hard. There would be a roast chicken on the table and plum pudding with a lucky sixpence hidden in it and nuts and raisins to follow. We were Methodists so no alcohol except the plum pudding, which required brandy. So my dear grandmother would stand outside a liquor store, which she would not enter, and beg a complete stranger to go in and buy her a bottle of the devil’s medicine so that she could make the pudding.

Lamb was the cheap meat back then; chicken was expensive and for special occasions only. We did do an extra splurge one year and bought a turkey, the first one that we had seen. Someone told us that it cooked tough unless you drew the sinews from the legs. I have a very vivid memory of my father standing right on the turkey with a pair of pliers attempting unsuccessfully to extract those sinews. We did not get another turkey. I did not meet cranberries until I was 26 when a rich friend who had visited America brought back a can. Artichokes were still in my distant future.

There was always church on Christmas morning. There were pagans, otherwise known as Episcopalians or worse yet Catholics, who would have a service at midnight but we had no truck with them. Our service was at 9 AM when a packed church would sing heartily “See amidst the winter snow” except none of us had ever seen snow. We did have Christmas trees at home which we decorated with balls of cotton wool to make it look like snow had fallen.

Carol singing was a grand tradition. Our church would go from house to house on Christmas Eve singing carols at each house on the street. I was church organist at the time and had just come home from a carol practice with my choir on the 21st when I got run over by a car, broke my leg, and had my life changed. That Christmas I lay in hospital and had the Salvation Army play carols for me outside my ward. It was wonderful.

My mother’s family came to South Africa as missionaries from England so every year we had to listen on shortwave radio to the Queen’s Message. We all had to stand at attention while she spoke and especially when they played God Save the Queen. And then, we were free to go to the beach!

It was not until I came north that I realized just how intimately our religious festivals are tied into the northern nature cycle. Easter really is about Spring and new birth, the resurrection of daffodils and tulips. Christmas really is about a baby being born at the entirely wrong time of the year, of light coming into the world when it is at its darkest. One tends to lose some of the significance when celebrating Easter as leaves are falling and Christmas when it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the day is at its longest. Thank goodness for imaginations and Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim.

So with that Merry Christmas to you all and may God bless us, every one.

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