Yesterday was Christmas Eve and we took Amanda Walker, a Canadian visitor from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to the Hours and Readers Service at Mamelodi, in the classroom at Zakhele School. The main gate of the school, was locked, so we had to park outside. Amanda belongs to the St Vincent of Lerins Antiochian Orthodox Church in Saskatoon, and had been at our youth conference earlier in the holidays, so was able to meet some of the friends she had made there.
Then in the evening Amanda came with us to the St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg for Compline and Matins for Christmas Eve. She was very curous about the differences in Christmas customs between Southern Africa and North America, and that is something I've noticed in blogs and journals.
She observed that Christmas is far less commercial here, and people generally make don't make a big fuss about it as they seem to do in North America. It is very unusual here for people to put Christmas decorations on the outside of their houses. There is one street in Pretoria where the residents do this, and people from all over town go to have a look at it.
And its only white people who seem to put up Christmas decorations inside their houses anyway. Our family custom is to put them up on Christmas eve, and take them down again on Theophany eve, a hangover from our Anglican days, when we tried to avoid celebrating Christmas in Advent. And for Orthodox the secular "festive season" is our "fastive season".
Another difference is that the words "holidays" and "vacation" seem to mean something different for us here than in North America, and there is a different series of events marking them. The Commercial Christmas begins in October, when shops begin their "Buy!" campaigns. In November the Christmas or summer vacation begins in the universities -- whenever students write their last exams of the academic year. Then they go home and relax, or look for vac jobs. This is also the season of office parties and school nativity plays.
Then comes the school holidays -- the Christmas holidays proper. This is usually in early December. The next event is the builders holidays, which begin about 12-13 December and last until about 7-8 January, and these two events mark the beginning of the grand exodus from Gauteng, to the country or the coast. Traffic jams in town magically vanish as the population heads north and south, and journey times within town are halved. The freeways are littered with broken-down trailers -- usually the wheels have come off because they are so heavily overloaded.
The next thing is the public holiday of the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December. For me, that has always been the signal that one should do one's Christmas shopping. The only traffic jams are in the vicinity of shopping centres.
Most of the businesses that have remained open since the start of the builders holidays close early on Christmas Eve, and some of them remain closed until after New Year. So from Christmas to New Year things are quieter still, except for the Old Year's Eve and New Year's Eve parties (Old Year's Eve parties seem to be peculiar to Pretoria -- I've never seen them anywhere else).
Christian churches in the Reformed tradition don't observe Christmas much. Some don't even have services on Christmas day unless it happens to fall on a Sunday. And as the Dutch Reformed Churches are among the biggest in the country, that tends to make Christmas more secular in South Africa. For the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the biggest of the Dutch Reformed Churches, Pentecost is far more important, and they often have special services between Ascension and Pentecost. They were very put out when Ascension Day ceased to be a public holiday.
For Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Theophany/Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season, the "Twelve Days of Christmas", though in my Anglican days that was when we used to put the wise men in the crib, which was blessed on Christmas Eve and remained up until Candlemas on 2 February. For Orthodox, Theophany is primarily the celebration of the baptism of Christ.
For our family, we then get a second bite of the cherry, as we are also involved with Old Calendar parishes, and so Theophany is followed immediately by Old Christmas, and the blessing of Christmas trees, made of oak leaves, which people take home from church. In Serbia they are all brown, because it is winter there, but here they are fresh and green.
The schools begin the new year about 7-12 January, and that is the end of the Christmas holidays. The Christmas vacation lasts a little longer. When I was a student, it lasted until the end of February, but since then the academic year seems to have been made extended, and so the students often go back at the end of January to begin the new academic year.
But that is all in the future. Today is the first day of Christmas, and we will go to the Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas at 9:00, and come back to Christmas dinner -- gammon and salads.
But that's one other difference in Christmas since becoming Orthodox. Not only have Easter eggs become far more important, but so have Christmas eggs. Yes, we have traditional Christmas fare of the English-speaking world -- turkey, ham or gammon and so on. We haven't really got into the Romanian custom of slaughtering pigs in the garden yet. But for us the best food of the Christmas season is BEST -- Bacon, Eggs, Sausage and Tomatoes. That is the Christmas fare we most look forward to!