Why does Father Christmas wear different shoes every year? Will he be able to find Torra Bay? Does he like Tafel Lager? Liesl de Beer had lots of questions as a child…
Liesl de Beer remembers magical Christmas moments from her childhood.
My mom could be quite stern. But that year, she turned a blind eye to the eviscerated pillow and the down feathers strewn around the yard, even though the pillow had belonged to Ouma Hart and she’d stuffed it with feathers from her own geese. My mom couldn’t be angry. Why? Because it was Christmas. In our house there was never enough money for big presents, but there were always lots of smaller gifts like hair clips, pencils, plastic watches and handmade items. Likewise, we never had a store-bought Christmas tree like other people in town; we had a sawn-off pine tree branch planted in an oil drum filled with rocks. (We wrapped the drum in crinkle paper to hide the Castrol logo and the dents.) We decorated the tree days in advance, using painted toilet rolls, paper chains and curls, and stars cut from the foil lids of instant coffee tins. When Christmas Day eventually arrived, the branch would be wilted
half to death. But no one cared. My four sisters, my little brother and I outdid ourselves when it came to the Christmas Eve concert. We prepared for a week behind closed doors, under the watchful eye of my second-eldest sister, Alta. She loved organising (she went on to coach the Tolwe drum majorettes in the Bushveld heat) and she always made the four of us line up, from shortest to tallest, exactly like the choir teacher did at school. We sang Christmas carols and rehearsed the scene around the manger. We also made our own costumes. One year Annelie and I were the angels. We wore our sisters’ white dresses from a previous school concert and Alta made thick, white wings from old sheets and pillow stuffing. Those fat, limp wings made me feel like the angel Gabriel himself. My eldest sister, Elsje, would read from the Bible and the two angels had to chime in: “During the night, an angel came to Mary…”
The year of the goose-down pillow, we lived on a plot outside Meyerton. The house was surrounded by a huge lawn – mowing it took an entire Saturday morning. By then we were older and we’d outgrown the concert thing. But we still enjoyed a bit of theatre. We made all the Christmas decor and the costumes ourselves. Father Christmas’s beard was fashioned from polystyrene packaging curls – a revolutionary upgrade from a cotton-wool beard. We were determined to push the boundaries. When Father Christmas, dressed in my dad’s paisley robe, knocked on the window that evening, my eldest sister and I ran up the stairs to the attic, grabbed some scissors and cut open Ouma Hart’s down pillow to make it snow. Everything went according to plan. Father Christmas emerged from a flurry and climbed through the window – a White Christmas on the Highveld! The next morning the lawn looked like a scene from Switzerland. And we learnt just how many down feathers can fit into a pillow because we had to pick them all up… During the Christmas meal, my dad poured each of us a tiny glass of sherry. My little brother got cooldrink and after we said grace he raised his glass and shouted, “Vi Kêswees, vi Kêswees!” To this day, that’s the toast we say when we’re together in December.
Christmas dinner was also always a special occasion. When Oupa Hart was still alive, the whole family would gather on his plot in Daleside, north of Meyerton. The house and yard would be bursting with uncles, aunts and cousins. My uncle Oliver parked his caravan next to the farmhouse. He usually took the lead when it came to entertainment – and genealogy. Tracing our family tree, with all its unruly branches, was his speciality. We kids had a different focus – dessert! We couldn’t keep our eyes off the magnificent Christmas pudding, which had a 5c coin hidden in it somewhere. My youngest sister couldn’t help herself… Long before dinner, a sticky smear on her cheek gave her away: She had tunnelled into the pudding to get the coin.
Father Christmas wore different shoes every year. When we were little, he wore brown Grasshoppers, which were later replaced by Tiger takkies. Around the time our big teeth came in, we figured out that Father Christmas’s shoes looked a lot like our dad’s… And he couldn’t possibly fly all the way from the North Pole to bring us presents. In later years, after I got married and moved to Namibia, the summer heat forced old Saint Nick to wear Rocky sandals, but he still donned his red jacket. My dad eventually retired from Santa duty and my husband Arra took over – one year my young son accused Father Christmas of stealing his dad’s tennis shoes! In Namibia, the kids would spend hours wondering whether Father Christmas would arrive by boat, or whether he’d come over the dunes from Swakopmund. Coming from the sea involved dodging sharks and shipwrecks and braving the icy water; coming from the desert was equally problematic: No reindeer could survive in the Namib. (For some reason, flying in on his sleigh didn’t seem to be an option.) My dad always felt sorry for sweaty Santa and bid him farewell as soon as he had handed out the gifts. Arra would quickly disappear down the street with a cold Tafel Lager and an empty gift bag slung over his shoulder.
Another Christmas from my childhood stands out. It was the year we went camping at Torra Bay on the Skeleton Coast. I can’t remember whether we had gifts or a Father Christmas – he would have had a hard time finding Torra Bay anyway – but I do recall the adults heating bathwater in drums over the fire for our Christmas Eve bath. Once we were scrubbed clean, I remember walking around the campsite with other kids singing Christmas carols. Up and down we walked, carrying torches, the loose sand beneath my bare feet. The adults came out of their tents to listen. There was meat on the braai (“You can only eat fish for so long,” as Oom Jan was fond of saying) and after the carols we all gathered in a big army tent owned by the Burger family, to eat. The men talked about tides and bait and which fishing spot they’d visit after Christmas Day: Hoëwalle, Boetebaai, Uniabmond, or maybe Paaltjie 2? The kids played outside until it was long past our bedtime, getting up to mischief. We put a potato in the exhaust pipe of Aunt Josie’s car, pulled out a few tent pegs, stole some biscuits… But none of us got into trouble. Because it was Christmas.
Around the time our big teeth came in, we figured out that Father Christmas’s shoes looked a lot like our dad’s… And he couldn’t possibly fly all the way from the North Pole to bring us presents.