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Christmas Eve dinners through a bittersweet prism, from the Beatles to brown paper crackers

Christmas Eve dinners through a bittersweet prism, from the Beatles to brown paper crackers
The candles we light are always for Niccy. Image by zandy126 from Pixabay

The tradition had begun in the early Eighties, in our rented house in the Cape Town Southern Suburbs. It has continued through the years in The Party House, even through the short years in England, and now in the Karoo, through loss and sorrow, as it has through happiness and the times of our lives, with this festive season marking the passing of the baton to a new generation.

I got the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night album for Christmas when I was nine. A year later, for Christmas 1965, I was to get a bike for the first time. My parents had been nervous of me riding a bike after my older brother Phillip had had a bike accident and died, when he was just six. My best protestations (you know, the usual childish manipulation of “but mommy, daddy, all the other kids in my class have got one already”) brought the rejoinder that “you can have one when you’re 10, and that’s that”. With hindsight, it’s surprising that they’d ever let me have one at all.

A Hard Day’s Night was the Beatles’ third studio album but the first to contain only songs they had penned themselves. But it was for Christmas 1966 that I hit paydirt. Pat, my older sister (and Phillip’s older sister too), got the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath that year, but I was in the winning seats again (as I saw it) when, underneath the Christmas tree, I found a brightly wrapped edition of the Beatles’ Revolver, which was to become – and remain to this day – the seminal album of all the band’s remarkable output. And the album that delved into George Harrison’s nascent infatuation with Indian culture, and particularly the sitar. Edgy, mystical sitar riffs interwoven with tribalistic drums, guitar and otherworldly vocals were offset against the boys’ new pop ballads (like McCartney’s Here, There and Everywhere, and George Harrison’s Taxman, a rocking denouncement of the state’s taking of a tithe on which to run the country. This, and Harrison’s Eighties solo single, Got My Mind Set On You, point to a materialism seemingly at odds with his spiritual dimension.

The Revolver album seared itself into my consciousness and probably had everything to do with my growing determination to try to do things in ways other than the bleeding obvious, to try not to follow the pack. Which sums up the potential power of a gift: there are times when a seemingly simple choice of a gift, often soon to be forgotten, can stay with the recipient for the rest of his life. Christmas memories are like that in other ways too, as I don’t doubt are the gifts given at Diwali, Passover and other key occasions in the world’s faiths. And which all have the power to bring joy as much as they do to bring sadness. Too many people find Christmas, and other seminal celebrations, a time of sorrow, if those they once embraced on those days are now gone; when we lost our Niccy just after Christmas in 1992 we had to make a determined effort for the Christmases that followed not to allow ourselves to be dragged into despair by the loss of a year earlier. But there are too few times to hug and nurture those we hold dear, whether family or friend, so we found it worth the effort, and invited the crew over for our annual Christmas Eve dinner.

The tradition had begun in the early Eighties, in our rented house in the Cape Town Southern Suburbs. The Caviggias, Anne Taylor and us were the first to sit at our first ever Christmas Eve table. John Caviggia, who was a leading light of the city’s theatre life in so many ways, and his parents Leo and Joan, Leo so Italian with his husky, almost indecipherable tones, Joan so English, so very mannered and Thirties. Anne Taylor who had introduced us to each other, and who is coming to us yet again for Christmas Eve this year. Indefatigable Anne, who I try not to picture on the phone in our bedroom in Tamboerskloof in January 1992, reading a death notice to the Argus and Cape Times for Niccy, tears streaming down her face. Niccy who had been 19 then, and who now would have just turned 47.

Often for Christmas Eve dinner there’d be one or two lonely souls who were far from their family; we’d invite them to join in to get a bit of that family feel, even if it was only us. Sometimes there’d be visitors from elsewhere in the world. Sometimes the friends were Jewish or Muslim; it didn’t matter. On one occasion we invited a Muslim colleague who brought his Jewish girlfriend. For us it was never a religious affair; it was about humanity, and sharing it. If it is that, for you, I respect that; but it never was for us.

For that first dinner, the one where the Caviggias first joined us for the night – that tradition would continue until John died in recent years – my starter was Imam Bayaldi, which seems to confirm what I wrote in the paragraph above. It’s hardly a Christian dish. Imam Bayildi – “The Imam fainted” – is a Turkish classic which gobbles up masses of olive oil (doesn’t brinjal always) with onion, red peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Yotam Ottolenghi also uses lemon, and some recipes – like my early Christmas Eve one – have the stuffed aubergines topped with toasted pine nuts.

I got my recipe at the time from the late, great and inimitable Madeleine van Biljon, who when she was not writing fabulous columns for The Sunday Times was the life and hard-drinking soul of any party, not least her own, given in her spacious apartment near Parliament. Maddy never came to our Christmas Eve dinners – she was probably holding her own at home – but did appear at other parties. I say “appear at” because there was always a sense of occasion when she walked in. She was a kind of insurance against a party flopping: it just wasn’t possible if she was in it.

Often there was the suave and mischievous Alex Petersen with his plummy accent, who we’d find asleep behind the couch next morning, as was his wont. Keith and Margaret Bewick spent many a Christmas Eve with us, in the years when Keith was The Toastmaster, always too generous with a well-chosen short speech, always funny, always humane. Even in the four years of living abroad, in Chichester, West Sussex, the tradition continued, but with new people. James was there, embarrassed when I played Cliff’s Christmas songs, Liz and Pete our Chichester friends were there; Jess came down from London. Odd that now we’re here and Jess is in Chichester, on her own on Christmas Day; Skyping will be in order. It turned out to be easy to get a table full in England for Christmas Eve; they all had their own Christmas lunches anyway, and thought us odd to do it the night before.

In the Nineties – we stayed in the house for a full 10 years, despite Niccy having left us within weeks of moving in – our home became known as the Party House, and many a Cape Town journo has memories of jolling and misbehaving at our bashes. The things that went on in our pool defy polite description (I could name names but won’t); it was the only home we’ve had that had a pool – and a large one at that – until our present 2×2-metre square Karoo dam pool. But who needs to do lengths when you can wallow in cool water with a glass. One year while living in Tamboerskloof we went away to Matjiesfontein for Christmas, but the house still had a celebration as friends, the clan that our kids grew up with, took over the house for their own Christmas party.

We’re leaving our Karoo home this Christmas though for our daughter’s home in Cape Town where young Jem will have his first Christmas at the start of a new phase of family Christmas Eve dinners. The new generation has taken up the baton, and have elected to keep the “eve” tradition, which has always made sense to us because the day is cooler by then, and we do like to do the proper old-school thing of the turkey and the gammon and the duck-fat-roasted potatoes, the Brussels sprouts with bacon, the Christmas pudding with brandy butter (which was always made by Anne), the trifle (now to be made by daughter Rebecca at the start of this new tradition), and all the rest.

As if mirroring the first Christmas in Tamboerskloof, which was to precede Niccy’s passing by less than three weeks, the saddest Christmas was the last one in the Party House. Barker (Maryanne, but we all called her Barker) – who had become one of my closest friends by then, who I felt “saw” me more than anyone else, and who dubbed me “Thulani” because, she said, “still waters run deep” (one can only hope so) – was standing in front of the fireplace in the lounge on the Wednesday night before Christmas, cigarette in one hand, can of beer in the other. This with her wheezing, full-blown asthma. Yet finding the breath to belt out all the verses of Good King Wenceslas, with me joining her on the choruses. She was gone before Christmas Day dawned, having done her gift shopping for her kids, all around her where she lay. I miss her greatly.

Tinsel and baubles, candles and fairy lights, joy and sorrow. Apparently the old glitter, gawdy colours and glossy papers are to become a thing of the past, for matters to do with the climate crisis, and we older ones know we must conform to the news ways. Not without a tinge of sadness that the colour and kitsch may soon be departing from the Christmases we have known, to make way for Christmas crackers hand-made using brown paper and paper towel holders and which don’t go “pop!” when you pull them. Mind you, I’ll be making them, so you never know. DM

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