Feasts, family and friends

December 25, 2013 § 2 Comments

One of my daughters walked into the kitchen at about noon today and said: “Mmmm, Mom. Now the house smells like Christmas.” And I knew exactly what she meant. Perhaps it sounds boring to those who like to ‘tweak’ Christmas dishes, or do ‘twists’ on old classics, but in my home, on Christmas Day, you’ll get pretty much the same thing for lunch every year.

It’s actually quite a simple meal: roast lamb, a gammon, roast potatoes and an assortment of vegetables and plenty of gravy. There must be cauliflower cheese. And if a vegetarian friend is joining us, there’d be something extra for them that felt like a main course. For dessert there’s Christmas pudding and trifle, and since my kids came along, a chocolate Yule ‘log’ that is always devoured with gusto. And then we stagger off to the couch for a cuppa and a chat while the dishwasher chugs away in the kitchen.

I might change the veggies slightly from year to year, but essentially, the meal stays the same. Because for me, it’s about tradition. I grew up eating roast lamb for Christmas, being a good boeremeisie. My husband grew up eating turkey, but he’s not fond of it, so we’ve defaulted to lamb. And for me the smell of lamb roasting when I get home from church on Christmas morning, combined with the spices in the steamed pudding, is what Christmas smells like. Anything else would just not feel like Christmas to me.

I love the ceremonial carrying out of the dishes, the sudden hush as we pause to say grace, the snapping of crackers, and the clink of forks on plates as we eat together, a motley assortment of family and friends gathered at my table for a celebration of peace and goodwill. I love the chatter as the kitchen is restored (mostly) to order, the scolding of dogs as they try to scavenge a little Christmas for themselves, the faint tinkling of wine bottles as the recycling is carried out, the weariness in my back and legs as I finally settle down on the sofa after lunch.

It’s hard work, and it takes a fair amount of planning and preparation, but I love doing it every year, and I wouldn’t swop it for anything. Happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, wherever you may be.


Have some fun… first

December 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

I love the festive season, but it wears me out. Mostly, this is self-inflicted – I have extra people in the house, which means extra mouths to feed, increased housework, and then there’s the seasonal cooking I do (by choice) – fruitcakes, shortbread, ginger biscuits, a chocolate Yule log, and with any luck, a gingerbread house… And that’s just for starters. We won’t even talk about Christmas Day.

When I woke up this morning I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed and overwrought, and frankly, fairly panicked. It’s a week till Christmas, and I don’t feel prepared. I have a to-do list as long as my arm, and it seems to get longer every day.

And so, I decided to bake some gingerbread.


Because I wanted to. Because some of my Twitter friends asked me to and hinted they’d happily come over and taste it for me, being sacrificial types… *cough*

But mostly, because I wanted to. I love baking, and it was the one thing I did today that I did purely because I wanted to. It was the work of moments – I simply stirred the ingredients together with a wooden spoon, and the oven did all the hard work. And yet that small, selfish act had an enormous impact. It gave me the impetus I needed to do all the “have-tos” I had to get through today. Because I did it first, before the long list of chores.

There’s a lesson in that. I don’t think you need me to tell you what it is.

Flowers for Madiba

December 11, 2013 § 5 Comments

It’s been an upside-down week, a week where the school holidays began and Nelson Mandela’s life ended. The contrast between the mundane and the momentous this week has been almost more than I can process.

South Africa has celebrated in its own idiosyncratic way; as I write this I’m watching Ladysmith Black Mambazo deliver their acapella alchemy at the Cape Town memorial concert for Madiba, but the Cape Town concert follows a mostly farcical official memorial service, featuring booing crowds, presidential selfies and a fake official sign language interpreter.

I found it all frustrating at first, but I’ve had some time to think, and tonight I view it all with a smile, because it’s all so typically South African. Sometimes we are the very epitome of that apocryphal Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

Life in South Africa is many things, but it is never, ever dull.

I have looked to official events like the concert and yesterday’s memorial to help me grieve for our great Madiba. In many ways he was an enigma, and yet, undoubtedly, he was the father of our nation and a peerless leader. And in the end, there’s no ceremony or tribute that can truly do him justice.

The thing that has helped me grieve the most was going to his house on Friday morning, just twelve hours or so after he died. I decided to visit on the spur of the moment, my two daughters in tow. I wanted them to participate in this historical event in some way, to hep them to appreciate something of Mr Mandela’s impact on the South Africa they were born into.

I cut a bunch of hydrangeas from my garden, and drove the short distance to Houghton. We parked as close as we could, and then we walked a block or two to his house with other South Africans who had also come to pay tribute to the great man.

I wish I had the words to describe the scene that met us. In the centre of the gathering, a small group of ANC members sang freedom songs and danced without flagging for even a moment, while around them, South Africans from all walks of life milled around, some taking photos, some crying, some smiling, some simply soaking up the atmosphere. There was a feeling of simultaneous sadness and celebration, and somehow, it worked. It felt right. It felt appropriate.

I had to queue a little to lay my flowers with all the others, but there was no pushing or shoving. We wordlessly made way for each other. Somehow, it seemed, we were all a little gentler with each other than usual. We communicated with looks and smiles and nods that said more than words could ever convey. And for me, there was an element of déjà vu – the first democratic elections in 1994, and the Soccer World Cup in 2010, events both inextricably linked to Nelson Mandela.

It was one of the more moving experiences of my life, and I’m so grateful to have experienced it. More importantly, I’m grateful to have lived through the dismantling of apartheid – something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and something Nelson Mandela wrought with his ANC comrades. We still have a long way to go, yes, but at least we don’t live under the burden of institutionalised racism any longer. And it may be a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward process sometimes, but in South Africa we love to dance, so that little shuffle works for us. We may be feeling our way, but we’ll feel it together.

And while my simple bunch of flowers, cut from a bush in my garden, might be buried under the deluge of other bouquets that have been left, I’m glad I left them. I’m glad I was able to take my children with me. And I’m glad that from now on I will always associate hydrangeas – those beautiful blue blooms – with one of the world’s most beautiful souls.

Enkosi kakhulu, Tata Madiba. Lala ngoxolo, uhambe kakuhle.

A sad farewell

December 6, 2013 Comments Off on A sad farewell

It seems apt to run this again. After months of a media circus, Nelson Mandela died at home last night. RIP, Madiba. “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”


I like to tell my family that I met Nelson Mandela once, and he said he was pleased to see me. And while that’s not untrue, it’s not the whole truth. Yes, he shook my hand, and said he was pleased to see me, but he did the same for all the other people who attended the launch of the Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom. I still have my copy and I cherish the tears in the loose cover, gained in the scuffle to touch the edge of his cloak.

And now, all these years later, he lies, frail, and probably at death’s door while the world waits to see if this will be the final hospital visit he makes.

There’s a lot been said about him out there in the past while, some of it negative, much of it laced with sadness at what is almost the end of…

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All I want for Christmas

December 4, 2013 § 3 Comments

Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and my maternal grandmother died when I was about six, so for most of my life I had just one grandparent.

My gran died a number of years ago, and I was heartbroken when she did, but I remember being impressed at the same time, because she left so little for my dad, her only child, to sort out after her death: the few clothes in her cupboard, a box of costume jewellery, and some personal items in her nightstand, as she had been in frail care for some time. She truly understood that you can’t take anything with you when you die.

Now it’s true that my gran didn’t have much to leave in the first place – she was far from wealthy, but she was frugal with the money she had and never went into debt. She always bought the best quality she could afford, and I never saw her waste anything, ever. But she was never stingy or mean. And before she moved into frail care she began giving away her few treasured possessions, preferring to experience the pleasure of giving while she was still alive.

As we head into Christmas, my gran has been on my mind. When I was growing up, Christmas wasn’t the conspicuously commercial shopping fest it’s become. Yes, we got presents, but they were far simpler. A bar of Vinolia soap was considered a huge luxury. Bubble bath was highly prized. My gran was delighted if you bought her a bottle of Oil of Olay or a pack of stockings. (She always wore real stockings, not pantyhose, and as a little girl I loved to help her clip them into the garter clasps.)

She would have been horrified by what Christmas has come to represent, I think. In so many ways, we’ve completely lost the plot. There’s a crassness that’s crept into Christmas that leaves me reeling sometimes, even though it’s my favourite celebration.

For me, Christmas is about the familiar rites and rituals, the sounds and smells. It’s about the Christmas cake that I bake in October, and the aroma of cinnamon, ginger and cloves that fills my house as it bakes – that quintessential fragrance that tells me the end of the year is on its way.

It’s about singing the old familiar carols, preferably by candlelight, and giggling with my children as we decorate the tree and untangle the lights that have somehow crocheted themselves into a bad macramé creation while they languished in the cupboard for a year. It’s about the salt dough and cardboard decorations my children made in junior school that are as beautiful to me as the magnificent ornaments I bought at a specialist shop in Athens. It’s about driving the family mad as I insist on driving all over Johannesburg to find beautiful Christmas lights up in the streets, just because I remember how I loved to drive down Main Street in Port Elizabeth as a child and view the lights the municipality used to string up in town.

I love to gather my friends and family for relaxed meals, some well thought through, others more haphazard and impromptu, but with the emphasis on quality time spent with people I love, not some imagined Masterchef competition where I show off my culinary skills with a parade of dishes that would have the Roux brothers swooning with delight.

And on Christmas Day, I like to have a minimum of 12 people over for lunch, so that it feels like a celebration, like a feast. That’s my very favourite thing. I cook a hot meal in the heat of a Johannesburg summer, slaving proverbially over the stove, and I love every minute of it.

And the presents? Well, yes, there are presents, but quite honestly, I get more joy out of giving presents than receiving them. I would enjoy Christmas just as much if I didn’t get a single thing. Because it’s not about the things. Things are temporary. Things don’t make us happy.

So if you really want to give your loved ones something special this Christmas, don’t give them things, don’t max out your credit card to buy them more stuff that they probably don’t need. Because what they really need is you. They need your time, your attention, your love. They need your eyes to light up when they walk into the room. They need you to put down the book, the phone, the tablet, the TV remote, and really listen to them. (And I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone here.) They need a spontaneous hug, a phone call out of the blue, a love note in their school or work lunch box, a kind word when they’ve had a bad day.

Christmas is about giving, yes, but it’s about so much more than giving things. It’s not about shopping, or food or decorations. It’s about people: the people you love and who love you. So this Christmas, do something different. Give them the gift that costs nothing, but is worth everything – you.

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