South Africa, Christmas in

South Africa, Christmas in

South Africa is located on the southernmost tip of the African continent. Because it lies in the Southern Hemisphere, South Africa celebrates a summertime Christmas (for more on the difference between theNorthern and Southern hemispheres, see Winter Solstice). Many people head for the mountains or the beach at this time of year and thus celebrate Christmas with picnics, barbecues, sports, and other outdoor activities.

In spite of the heat Christmas shoppers often find shopping districts decorated with the typical trappings of a northern Christmas, including Christmas trees sprayed with false snow, and various depictions of sleighs, reindeers, and cold, dark, winter evenings. Father Christmas, dressed in red velvet and furs, often makes a sweaty appearance as well. Shoppers may further the illusion of a cozy, northern Christmas by purchasing Christmas cards picturing snowy, winter scenes. Or they may embrace the realities of a South African Christmas by choosing cards that feature the plants, animals, and landscape of a South African summer.

The English Christmas Heritage

Christmas celebrations in South Africa share much in common with those of Great Britain, as many white South Africans are descended from English settlers (see also England, Christmas in). Although Afrikaners outnumber South Africans of British descent, Englishspeaking South Africans have wielded much cultural influence due to their political dominance in the twentieth century. Moreover, many Afrikaners come from strict Protestant sects, such as Calvinism, that have not placed much importance on the celebration of Christmas.

Father Christmas, Christmas cards, Christmas dinners that begin with Christmas crackers and end with plum pudding, Christmas stockings, and family excursions to pantomime shows are among the Christmas traditions introduced to South Africa by its English settlers. Some South Africans, following the lead of their Australian colleagues, hang up pillow cases instead of stockings, thereby giving Father Christmas more room to be generous (see also Australia, Christmas in). Like the British, South Africans observe Boxing Day on December 26 by giving tips to workers who have served them throughout the year, such as garbage collectors.

The Afrikaner Christmas Heritage

Afrikaners trace their roots back to Dutch, German, and French settlers who came to South Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the early part of the twentieth century, Afrikaners from rural South Africa celebrated Christmas by attending church and receiving Holy Communion (the Eucharist), or by reading from the Bible at home. Children might receive a few, simple gifts. Special cakes and jam tarts, rarely available in those days, were served with Christmas dinner, which often featured roast turkey or roast pork. In some families, however, these special desserts were served on New Year's Eve rather than Christmas. Families often went visiting on Christmas Day to exchange Christmas greetings in person. Over time many Afrikaners adopted the more festive Christmas customs of English South Africans.


South Africans have embraced the custom of attending outdoor, candlelit, sing-along caroling concerts on Christmas Eve (see also Christmas Carols). These concerts, known as Carols by Candlelight, began as an Australian Christmas custom and later migrated to South Africa.

Music is an important component of Christmas festivities for many South Africans. Some go caroling from door to door on Christmas Eve. Others form Christmas bands that play in the streets during the last few days before the holiday. Traditionally only men and boys participate in this custom. The groups wear matching uniforms whose purchase is financed through their various fundraising activities.

Christmas Day

Christmas morning church services often feature special programs, such as Christmas pageants put on by the congregations' youth or special choir concerts. Many South Africans eat Christmas dinner around noon. This makes sense if, in spite of the summer heat, they keep the European custom of eating a heavy, oven-roasted meal. After an early afternoon nap, some head off to the beach or other cool, outdoor locations.

Black and Asian South Africans

Black South Africans compose about 75 percent of the nation's population. Until recently a political system known as apartheid insured that most black South Africans lived separately from whites and remained relatively poor and uneducated. Most black South Africans are Christians, but a sizeable percentage hold to traditional, tribal religious beliefs. Before the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s, the Christmas celebrations of black South Africans tended to revolve around family gatherings, festive meals, and simple gifts. Now black South Africans find themselves increasingly drawn into Christmas commercialism.

South Africa also hosts a small minority of Asians, many of whom are Hindus and Muslims and therefore do not celebrate Christmas.

Further Reading

Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 2000. Tucker, Cathy C. Christmas Worldwide. Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris, 2000. Wernecke, Herbert H. Celebrating Christmas Around the World. 1962. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1999.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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