Christmas is here and if you live in America you know this because the bombardment starts on Thanksgiving. The television commercials are a dead giveaway, plus the specially named shopping days, “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday.” The most insulting ads are the car ones. There’s no greater Christmas surprise than buying a Land Rover SUV for the better half and then leaving the key subtly wrapped in a small box with a bow underneath the tree. This allows for the recipient to wander cluelessly out to the snow-covered driveway and be blown away by the brand new metallic gun-blue fully loaded auto. But hold on, there’s not just one gas guzzler…there’s a black doppelganger with tinted windows parked right next to it. This looks like Operation Desert Storm/Shock and Awe hardware. What follows is a kiss with something inane like “I just couldn’t resist it, the deal was unbeatable.” “You shouldn’t have” is the stock response. All is well in three-door garageville. Merry fucking Xmas!
The dis here cannot be forgiven, it is very intentional…”I got it, you ain’t got it, and you ain’t ever going to get it.” Television has a way of reinforcing the most venal aspects of capitalist consumption and the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This might be accompanied afterwards by the somber voiced promo for an endangered species of wildlife that your $20 tithe can save from extinction. Just imagine how many polecats and skunks you can run over with a Land Rover and still feel good about the cheetahs in the Serengeti Plains that your cash donation has helped rescue from the poachers. No skunk juice pong here. It’s relentless.
Christmas for me as a child in Durban, South Africa was a strange experience, exotic and odd. To begin with, I grew up in the southern hemisphere. So it was 110 degrees and there were these images of polar escapades, reindeer with German handles, and midgets in funny hats with big schnozzolas. My favorite Christmas card was from a few years ago. The reindeer are all chewing the hay in the stable and Santa appears. One reindeer says to the others, “Ah Jesus, here comes Fatty again with his sack full of cheap crap.” But I am veering off here. Back to the Christmas of my childhood!
My eldest sister Jenny tells this story, and it probably occurred before I was born or was too young to remember. My father Mogs was instructed to arrive home with a Christmas tree, circa the early 1950s. He blew the detail and thus was under some pressure to deliver on Christmas Eve. The family lived in a cheap low-ceilinged apartment not far from the Umgeni River. All that Mogs could find that day was a gigantic Douglas fir. He arrived home, probably halfway in the bag, and somehow with a whole lot of bending and defoliating, the tree was situated in the living room. There wasn’t much room for anything else. The household had barely any Christmas decorations. There were three baubles, an angel, and this enormous tree that was infested with ants. It was a little like the Charlton Heston film The Naked Jungle, where the hordes of killer ants eat up the cocoa plantation in Brazil, except there was no plantation…just us. My mother Leah chalked up this one to another of my father’s grievous misdemeanors. Like Saint Peter, she kept a list.
Thus came the advent of the ersatz white plastic Christmas tree, one that served us well up to my age of leaving home. It measured up to my knees. It had a red tin pot at the bottom, and the branches were sprinkled with some kind of Ken Kesey day-glo silver glitter. By then we had accumulated a right old mess of tree ornaments, not just baubles, but stars, acorns, a squirrel that looked like David Duke in his Klan attire, and the obligatory angel on top that wasn’t going to hell. The tree got hauled out of the cupboard religiously early each December and was the cause of much excitement. After a few years, the branches began to droop. Mogs claimed that this was due to the humidity and the excess of decorations. His solution was fewer geegaws, not a new phony tree.
To offset the cheesiness of the main item, my mother resorted to Plan B, which was hanging up the Christmas cards that we had received. Many of these cards were photographs of other white peoples’ families. My middle sister Bronwen and I used to pore over them and poked fun or cackled over the more peculiar looking individuals. My mother scolded us because we weren’t behaving in the proper Christmas spirit.
We sent out our own Christmas cards from the Morgan clan. This was standard fare, your harmless inane tripe like “Deck the Halls” or “Good King Wenceslas” lyrics in gilded lettering. There were no family snapshots. Leah would fill her fountain pen and from the pile of new blank cards handwrite the same message to all the other white South Africans that we knew in Durban, or who had sent us Christmas cards. Bronnie would get to lick the envelopes, and I licked the stamps. Leah would say the same thing to the liked ones as she said to the despised ones…”From Merlin, Leah, Jennifer, Bronwen and Michael Morgan.” No wonder all of her kids joined the liberation struggle.
I could go on, but I promised my fellow Hard Crackers editors that this would be short. I’m not going to bore you with episodes of the making of the Christmas cake, which weighed in at about a ton when the marzipan icing was added, or the arrival of the cheap booze, which Mogs would pour into fancier labeled bottles to bamboozle and impress the guests. Mogs loved Christmas. He was generally stoned from mid-December to the Day of the Epiphany.
Part of my political education was what happened on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. This was when the male African domestic servants in the neighborhood went from house to house seeking a bonsella (a bonus or a tip and commonly referred to as a Christmas Box) from the white households. Bloated white housewives or masters would answer the door and hand off 20 cents, a pittance, to each of these men, who felt obligated to bow and scrape in gratitude. The white sahibs would have that holier than thou look all over their mugs. All sins were forgiven until December 27th, when misery was again the order of the day. Mogs was better on this nonsense. He would sneak a couple of beer bottles to these guys, and even have them pose for a photo which he would later share with them. I noticed that and it stayed with me.
Many years later in Brooklyn, I discovered a tremendous Christmas song by the Texas country singer Robert Earl Keen on his 1994 album Gringo Honeymoon. It’s entitled Merry Xmas From The Family. The tune tells the story of a lower money white family and their celebration on Christmas day. I wish I could take up enough space to give you all the lyrics, but here is the opening verse:
Mom got drunk and Dad got drunk
At our Christmas Party
We were drinking champagne punch
And homemade eggnog
Little sister brought her new boyfriend
He was a Mexican
We didn’t know what to think of him ‘til he sang
Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad
And I can’t resist this part:
Brother Ken brought his kids with him
The three from his first wife Lynn
And the two identical twins
From his second wife Mary Nell
Of course he bought his new wife Kay
Who talks all about AA
Chain smoking as the stereo plays
The first Noel
This more or less says it all. When I first heard this song, I thought I had come full circle. The culture and the times are obviously different, but the sentiment is the same. Perhaps it is best summed up by the only Afrikaans (Boer) Christmas carol I can remember. It was by none other than that renowned unforgettable tunesmith Koos du Plessis and it was called Sommer Kersfees (Summer Christmas). Put that one on your turntable. Ho fucking ho!