With Christmas soon approaching I asked my host brother, Sanele, if he was excited for the holiday. His words to me were: “Danielle, this isn’t America; Santa doesn’t come to South Africa.” Instead of show him how depressing his words were to me I awkwardly laughed as the “right” words just seemed to escape me. Although technically Sanele was right, there was something about Christmas in the village that was far more significant than presents from Santa Claus.
On Christmas morning I was awoken at 6am by the sound of knocking on my door. Although I did not want to get out of bed I sleepily opened the door to find two of my students from my Boys’ Club bearing gifts of fresh mangoes from their trees and sweets from the little village shop. I welcomed them into my home and shared some of the Christmas sweets my family had sent me–no match for the generosity they had shown me. At that moment I thought to myself that this could easily be the most special Christmas morning I ever have.
After the boys left I was eager to get Christmas started! I spent the rest of the morning baking with the children of my host family, which has come to be a Christmas tradition as this was our second Christmas together. The kids started asking me long before Christmas day if we would be baking cakes like last year! So in the same fashion as the year before my tiny hut was quickly transformed into a bakery with kids mixing batter, rolling out dough and decorating cookies! The smiles on the children’s faces made finding sprinkles inside my bed that night totally worth it!
After completing Christmas morning in my hut I ventured out to pay a couple visits to people around the village. The first visit was to one of my students from Girls’ Club, Slindokuhle, who has been begging me to come meet her mom for awhile now. So I met her at the village carwash (something I will never understand as my village hasn’t had water in two years) and we made the trek to her home. When I arrived at her house I was initially taken aback by her very humble two-room home made of wood planks that housed herself, her mother and her two siblings. Yes, this simple structure is a common one in the village, but when I work with my students at school or they visit me at home I somehow forget the poverty that they go home to every night and that realization is never an easy one. These thoughts were quickly taken out of my mind the moment I was ushered into the “sitting room” to enjoy biscuits and apple soda with the mother, uncle, grandmother and children. We sat around the table watching old recordings of Celine Dion and Kenny G music videos on their tiny television. (Celine Dion and Kenny G are some of the most popular singers in my village and although I will never understand it I try to embrace it!) During our time together the family explained to me how much they love Christmas because they get to be together and enjoy one another. As I left they couldn’t stop thanking me for spending my Christmas with them and how honored they were to be with me when in reality I was the lucky one to have shared the holiday with them.
Still full from my biscuits and apple soda I headed over to my friend Jabu’s house to share a Christmas meal. Jabu is a cook for the orphans at the HIV/AIDS organization in my village and was one of my very first friends here! When I arrived at her home her family, just like that of Slindokuhle’s, was gathered around the TV, but in this case they were watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as they always seem to be on TV. (My students always like to tell me they think it’s so funny that Arnold is the “chief” of my village of California!) So as we sat around the TV I was fed the most glorious Zulu meal complete with chicken and beef, rice and maize meal as well as various side dishes. Zulu people take great pride in spoiling their guests and I was for sure spoiled in the sense as I was so full that I could hardly walk home! During our meal and TV watching we discussed my upcoming departure from the village and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Jabu put it perfectly when she said, “when you first arrived we thought it was crazy that you would be here for two years without your family and now nobody can believe those two years are almost over.”
This Christmas was one that I will never forget as it taught me that true beauty lies in simplicity. Whether it be receiving a gift of mangoes, baking cookies in a hut, watching old Celine Dion music videos or eating a large meal with friends, simple beauty is present in all of it.
Now I have an answer for my host brother, Sanele: “you are right; the famous Santa in a red suit does not come to South Africa because he only has clothes for winter, but the true meaning of Christmas is present all around you. It can be seen in the joy of a family sharing a meal or the smiles of children walking down the road eating fresh mangoes. Hidden in the small things we take for granted is the simple beauty that makes Christmas so special”
Happy New Year to you and may your eyes be opened to the simple beauty that is present all around you.