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.

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