It wasn’t the Grinch who stole Christmas; it was Northern Europe.
As a child born and raised in Central Africa, I was very aware of this confiscation. It outraged my mother, who was also born and raised in Africa.
We lived in British colony of Southern Rhodesia; and we were dominated by British immigrants who insisted on “dreaming of a white Christmas.” Well, tough luck.
As my mother liked to point out, not one more flake of snow fell in Central Africa than fell in the Holy Land, where Jesus Christ was born.
But we were — indigenous Africans and settlers alike — in the thrall of snow imperialism.
Being so close to the equator, snowfall was a meteorological impossibility. So those under the European cultural thumb decorated everything in sight with cotton wool. We could only dream of a cotton-wool Christmas.
Unlike my mother, my father felt no pressure from the European and North American inauthentic portrayal of Christmas as a white, cold affair. He didn't mind that the retailers edged their windows in cotton wool or that the Anglican Church went along with the Northern Hemisphere’s implication that Joseph and Mary struggled through the snow to get to the manger in Bethlehem.
The one thing my parents agreed upon was that Christmas began on December 24 and lasted for the traditional 12 days.
Not only was no snow substitute allowed in our house, but also no commercially produced ornaments; flowers and greenery were fine. As a result the whole family would go to a marshy area, known as a vlei, on Christmas Eve and cut great quantities of ferns which would be strung along the picture rails.
Decorations could be added to the green frieze, but only if we made them out of painted paper. Mostly, we stuck fresh flowers in it. It was a green Christmas.
When it came to food, my mother relented completely and we made English Christmas pudding (boiled for hours in muslin), fruit cake and pies made with mincemeat (an all-fruit mixture).
We weren't a drinking family, but a bottle of sweet sherry appeared at Christmas. My mother — who otherwise drank only tea and sometimes coffee (no water, milk, alcohol or sodas) — would take, ostentatiously, a very small glass of sherry. Having downed this half-ounce or so of fortified wine, she'd announce that she wasn't responsible for her actions, that she could feel her legs getting heavy and that she was drunk.
My brother and I watched Christmas after Christmas to see if there was any sign that there had been a physiological or psychological change in Mamma, but none was recorded.
We then ate a very English meal and listened to very English Christmas carols, like “The Holly and the Ivy” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” My mother, who hadn’t signed her separate peace treaty with Germany, wasn’t too keen on “Silent Night.”
It wasn't until I had turned 20 and was working in London at United Press International that I saw real snow. Sorry, Mamma, it beats cotton wool and it makes for a splendid Christmas, even if things were a bit different in Royal David’s City two millennia ago.
Now for some wassail. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate