The Ghosts of Christmases past, present and future

The Ghosts of Christmases past, present and future

Christmases that started in October with the making of a cake, plastered in marzipan and covered in royal icing now seem like a mirage; was it ever there? Yet the spirit of the season remains, come hail, high wind or pandemic, and here we are wondering, now what.

Christmas seems to know no creed any more; over time it’s become a thing for everybody. It punctuates our years and our lives whether we are Christians, Rastafarians or mere hopeless sinners who spend hours shopping in the days and weeks leading up to the day. It’s become inescapably secular in ways other than the brash vulgarity of its colours and sounds. But enough of shopping malls and Boney M.

The Big Day can be as joyous as it can be deathly depressing. How much more so the Christmas at the end of a year in which almost every family is touched by sickness or death from a disease that hadn’t been heard of on the 25th of December, 2019. Just this week it reached a beloved junior cousin in my own clan. And my brain threatens to implode when I hear cavalier dismissals of the virus; especially those unthinking and selfish remarks of it being “just a ‘flu, nothing to worry about”. Tell that to the real sufferers. Tell that to the Durban restaurateur we wrote about this week, then heard just this morning (Friday) that he hadn’t made it. Tell that to the LoCo sufferers… the Long Haul Covid victims who, many months after contracting it, just cannot shake it, and who report that it affects every part of their body, moving from one to the next. The eyes. The brain. Everywhere. 

And here I am writing about food, which requires a sense of taste, in a milieu in which most victims lose that seemingly innocuous thing. Imagine not being able to taste. It ought to be unthinkable, yet here we are.

And I’m thinking about the first Covid Christmas, and how many people in the world will not be able to appreciate it, not smell the brandied cherries, not taste the mince pie, or relish the aroma of the turkey as it comes out of the oven. Or who may not be there at all. The separated ones, those who elected not to travel to their families, watching one another open their presents on a computer screen. The empty chairs at millions of tables, and all those seated at the table inescapably aware that that chair is empty this year, and will be next, and next… and what will the new year bring, and will we have to endure a second Covid Christmas a year from now. So many unknowables.

But I’m looking further back today. The old man alone in his single room in a decrepit boarding tenement in Durban in December 1982 must have been sorely sad that last Christmas Day. Maybe he put his white cap on and went out for a stroll on the beachfront, bent over his walking stick. Did he mull, while he traipsed along the promenade, upon the Christmases of his working years, the hanging of the streamers along the ceilings, wall to wall; the lighting of the tree; the stringing up of Christmas cards and the memories of England and shovelling snow while standing under an unfamiliar African sky; memories that would remain memories, unto death.

The old lady alone in her flat in Sea Point must have looked forward for days to the Christmas Day visit, when the son would arrive and hug her and give her a present wrapped in bright paper and then, when he’d gone, try to cast from her mind the Christmases of long ago when the boy would be up at dawn, prodding gifts in the lounge, wondering which were his. The Christmas when he got Meccano, the one when he got the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night album; the one when he got his first bike. The bike she had resisted giving him for years, ever since the older boy had gone out to Sunday school on his bicycle one morning and that thing happened that took him away forever. Her mind surely wandered, on all of her Christmas days, to his grave on the desert edge of town, there then, as in 1958, there now, with the living son’s mind’s eye picturing it on many days, including his own remaining Christmases.

Decorating the house for Christmas, only a 10-minute walk from that grave, in the house on the corner of town, was looked forward to as much as the presents around the base of the tree. In the early ‘60s, Phillip had only been gone a few years, but the boy now six or seven barely remembered the toddler of two who had been told his brother had died. While there must have been a pall of sadness over my parents, watching me, I’d unfurl coils of coloured paper ribbon, one red, one white, or one green and one yellow, then cross-fold them to make a streamer you could pull out and run from the corner to the chandelier. The tree lights were a joy, hand painted and in varying shapes, not the austere fairy lights everyone gets now (us too). My favourite tree decoration was a red and white wax Father Christmas which is the only remnant of those early days. In more than 60 years, it has never found enough heat to melt it to nothing. There it is, on the tree in the Cradock house, right now; a Christmas tree decoration with a story to tell all the other latecomers on the other branches, the tinsel, the red and gold baubles, the tartan bows, the faux snow-napped pine cones; all oblivious of the stories the peculiar wax Santa has to tell. 

Christmas started in October. Not with Bing and Nat crooning on the general store loudspeakers but with my mom making the big square Christmas cake which she’d plaster with marzipan and then coat with royal icing with a hint of lemon in it to whiten the colour. The fruit mince and red glacé cherries and great quantity of chopped nuts had been soaked in brandy for days. Dainty Dinah, who turned out to be a boy (a more light-on-his-paws feline I have never encountered since), would swish around the kitchen, purring for attention, as mom poured the batter into the paper-lined pan and baked it for hours. When the icing had set on the marzipan much later, we’d pour colouring essences into leftover icing, red and green, and pipe it along the edges, then squirt little blodges of it on top and stick cake decorations on them, a fir tree, another Santa, and other Christmas cake kitsch.

That there was brandy in it and we were little children was never deemed an issue in our household. I was brought up to have a sip of mom’s muscadel now and then, and on our annual holidays was allowed a small glass of dry white wine with dinner at the hotel. It took, though luckily not to the extent it was to take with dad later on. Still, he and I can talk about all that one day in Valhalla.

I can only recall one sad and depressing Christmas. It must have been 1971, when we’d only been in the Three Anchor Bay flat for a few months, mom and me, and I was actually going to school when I left in my school uniform in the morning. I’m sure she must have wondered, is he actually going there now, the errant truant. There’d been two Christmases since we had left the Diamond Dorp in 1969. The first was in the Mouille Point flat that cost dad R100 a month, a high rental in those days, across from the lighthouse fog horn, the sound of which I love to this day. It helped me sleep; was a strange comfort in a stressful time. Another Oranjemund family came to stay that summer. They were returning to England, by passenger ship, where I imagine the pair of meanspirited brats might have become annoying neighbours or ended up on the dole. I can’t remember what we gave them for Christmas lunch. Gruel?

By now dad’s alcoholism had become apparent for all but the blind to see. It had never occurred to me before the move to Cape Town. For years since then I resented him for it but age changes you and now I just wish I could talk to him. If you’re young, and you still have your parents, grab them now, sit them down and make sure you talk through the difficult stuff while you still can. Safely of course. Be careful that you avoid contracting Covid. You do not want to give it to your parents like my friend in Cradock did, and be so deeply regretful when it’s too late to undo it.

A long life isn’t enough time in which to assimilate everything there is to be thought about. Even as I write I’m imagining dozens of Christmases over which Phillip’s loss must have cast an invisible veil over our parents. Our. I had to think about that word as I wrote it. Not just mine and Pat’s; Phillip’s too. Through that veil I see why dad drank like he did. The war had shell-shocked him. He often told me of it, yet what does a stupid kid know of shell shock. But I also see how the loss of your eldest boy brings you a pain you cannot erase, and the younger son, the remaining son, had to have a loss of his own in order to truly appreciate that. And it makes you want to sit down with the old man and try to let him know that you do understand, now. Maybe one day on Christmas Day in another place, beyond the veil. 

That I have slim memories of those early Cape Town Christmases is probably to do with all that, and its ripple effects on the rest of you; that there’s only mom’s shopgirl salary, only guilt in the head of the son where application and study should be. So instead of wrapping presents on Christmas Eve 1971 he saunters out into the Sea Point Main Road and window shops and remembers the old Christmases and while he is staring into a window that creepy old guy from the other day saunters up to him with undress-you eyes and luckily the kid’s fast on his feet and gets away, around the corner and up the street and into the flat. Hoping Creepy Guy can’t see where he went. And then an auction and everything gone and no we can’t afford to buy a ticket to London so you can avoid the army and on and on till 1973 when the kid decides, you know what, I’ll leave school and get a job. And and and… and now when I look back I see it clearly. That it all goes back in a sharp arrow to the day my big brother died when I was two. And that’s that.

And here we all are with death stalking the planet and known ways of avoiding it, yet so many are too arrogant to do the very simple things that need to be done. And you want to tell me that you have a right go party and have fun because you’re young, and the old folks probably won’t get it anyway. You think?

You can’t go back and find your dad on the promenade in Durban in 1982 and give him a hug; you were a stupid, know-nothing kid to whom it hadn’t occurred that no, son, you don’t have all the time in the world. He’s there now. Get to it. You can’t go back to the flat in Sea Point because mom won’t be there.

And now, to a pandemic Christmas, and the family about to travel in a bubble for a Christmas with a value greater than others, because we’ve been lucky, we’re all still here, we need to count our blessings. We’ll be avoiding other humans, wearing masks, packing sanitiser with the gammon and cherries, aiming to fill the tank only once each way, all the gifts wrapped, all having been ordered online and delivered by courier. On Christmas Day, I’ll be cooking buttered brussels sprouts with bacon and almonds, slicing the gammon I will have decorated like a Christmas tree with slices of preserved figs and glacé cherries, and glazed with mustard and fig preserve syrup, but I’ll be remembering you too, mom and dad, and Phillip, in your grave on the edge of the desert.

Bless you all this Christmas, and your families, and may you have a 2021 that brings all the joy that 2020 did not. DM/TGIFood


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