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My childhood Christmas in South Africa - Prue Leith

Blog | By Prue Leith | Dec 12, 2022

Prue Leith remembers her South African childhood

I grew up in a typical white, well-off, South African family. We lived in the fashionable and leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg in a big house with three acres of garden. My two brothers and I had a Xhosa nanny, called Emma. I still remember the laundry smell of her white apron and its comforting coolness against my hot and tearful cheek – also the scratchy stiffness of the starched lace at her shoulders. She, Nelson the gardener and Charlie the Zulu cook all spoilt us rotten. I think now they must have missed their own children back in their homelands. They only saw them once a year when they went on leave, which was never at Christmas. I’m ashamed to say that at the time I accepted this situation without a thought.

Christmas then was a modest affair compared with my grandchildren’s today. We didn’t have stockings – Father Christmas put our presents into the pillowcases we hung at the foot of our beds. My brother David and I tried desperately to stay awake to see him and one year we tied one end of a piece of string to a big toe and the other to the pillowcase in the hope we’d be woken as Father Christmas inserted the presents. It didn’t work.

Prue Leith

Oh, the excitement of that dawn exploration of the outside of the pillowcase, trying to guess its contents, and my desperate disappointment that it contained only books, when I’d prayed for a bicycle or a horse or a Wendy house. We generally got one present each from Mum and Dad, maybe one or two small things from relatives, always a ‘naartjie’ (clementine) and sometimes a tube of chocolate money. And that was that. I don’t believe we were any less thrilled than my grandchildren are, tearing wrapping paper off toys as fast as they can, but unable to keep up with the avalanche of gifts.

1942: Prue aged two in Jo’burg, with her elder brother, David

At about 11 o’clock we’d all assemble at the Christmas tree – an apple tree on the lawn, decked out in cotton wool snow – where my father, sweating in a red dressing gown and cotton wool beard under the African sun, dispensed largesse to the servants. They’d get brightly wrapped Christmas boxes and an envelope of money. Charlie would receive his with a dignified bow, Nelson with his hands clasped together, grinning, and Emma giggling with shyness.

Today the whole patronising colonial carry-on would make one cringe, but then it seemed good-natured, well-meant and kindly.

Sherry in the southern sun was followed by Christmas lunch, served inside in comparative cool. But no concessions were made for the blazing heat. We ate turkey, boiled ham, roast tatties and brussels sprouts (slimy grey-green things out of a tin), gravy, bread sauce, the works. Followed, of course, by Christmas pudding, mince pies and cream.

I remember lying in the hammock one year, under a vine-covered pergola, reading Black Beauty (I’d grown up enough to appreciate books) and stuffing my face with fudge filched from the lunch table. Unlimited sweets were a treat worth stealing for. My mother never bought any, and at boarding school we were allowed just two sweets on Saturdays after lunch, doled out by Matron.

Once I made a Christmas cake at school. What with mixing, baking, marzipan and icing, it took the whole term and I was immeasurably proud of my picture of the three kings on the top, painted in food colouring. But I’d forgotten to put any glycerine into the icing, and it set like concrete. My father could not get my mother’s ivory-handled carving knife into it, and resorted to hitting it with a hammer, which split the handle (to my mother’s fury) but the blade failed to penetrate the cake. In the end we turned the whole thing over and scooped the cake out of the concrete bowl. Not the best start to my future career.

Christmas holidays meant the beach at Hermanus or staying with cousins on their farm. Health and safety hadn’t been invented and we could splash barefoot in rivers, climb up the slippery waterfall or dive into deep pools – the water as brown and crystal clear as Coca-Cola. We must have been kept out of real danger, but I don’t remember ever being told, ‘Come off those rocks’ or ‘Down from that tree’.

From the Johannesburg family album: 1950, Prue is centre, aged ten, her mother Peggy is holding baby brother James and far left is her brother David. 1986

We would build a fire of driftwood on the beach and braai a whole yellowtail or a bucket of crayfish caught by our favourite uncle, Jack. If he’d failed to catch anything it didn’t matter because our aunt would grill brown bread cheese-and-apricot jam sandwiches over the embers, or steam mielie (corn) bread in a metal can. The memory makes me dribble.

Teatime beach picnics were both wonderful and agony. After being persuaded out of the chilly waves, our nanny would rub us roughly with a towel, both to dry and warm us, and then extract from her bag a packet of Marie biscuits (a bit like Rich Tea). I’d watch with desperate anticipation as she buttered each one and sprinkled it with hundreds and thousands before handing it to one of us. We’d wolf them down, one after another, our eyes on the diminishing packet. The angst that there’d be a biscuit left over, and I’d not be given it, was almost unbearable.

Sometimes we stayed in smart hotels and I’d be allowed the almost unheard-of treat of a ‘Brown Cow’ – a Coke with vanilla ice cream in it. Ever greedy, the minute my father succumbed to my request, I’d ask for a double in a pint glass. No such luck.

Prue’s snapshot of Christmas lunch. Her adopted daughter Li-da is in orange, and far left is her mother, Peggy

I was in love with horses but had never ridden one, so one year Uncle Jack borrowed a neighbour’s carthorse, lifted me onto his bare back, put the reins in my hands and let me get on with it. I was in seventh heaven. The horse, taking no notice of any tentative instructions from me, determinedly set off back to his home farm and into a field of lucerne (alfalfa), where the farmer found us in time to lift me down and save his horse from colic.

Then there was the annual children’s party, to which all offspring of employees of African Explosives (an ICI subsidiary that made dynamite, and for which my Dad worked) were invited. It was held in an enormous hall in Johannesburg, and Father Christmas gave every one of us a proper present: a big doll or teddy bear, a train set or kite. There were games, jelly, cake, balloons and music. I loved it.

Now, looking back at my 1940s childhood, I’m amazed at the privilege and safety we enjoyed. I don’t think I even noticed that only white children attended that party and only white families frolicked on the beach, nor that all our friends were white and all our servants black. I was a teenager before I woke up.