Thirty-eight years ago today, a baby was born in a humid, provincial African town. It was 4pm on one of the hottest days in living memory. Her mother laboured in an open labour ward, with two other women. Their three husbands were in the room. There was no air conditioning. She was dimly aware of Christmas beetles singing their interminable song, and cars on the town’s main road outside. The labour was long and painful. Eventually, she was taken to the delivery theatre where she endured an episeotomy without pain relief. The baby was born safely, and the young parents were delighted with the arrival of their daughter.
The mother and her baby spent six days in hospital, with the baby being taken away and bottle-fed by the nursing staff whenever the mother needed to sleep. She struggled to breast-feed, but was eventually persuaded that bottle-feeding would be easier and more convenient. She complied. On the sixth day in hospital, she made a special request to be allowed to leave so as to attend the family’s Christmas celebrations. The staff considered – usually women spent ten days in hospital, it would be untoward to let them go early. However, it was Christmas, and apart from the usual post-birth discomfort the mother doing well.
Her eager young husband collected his wife and new baby, and took them home for a quick feed and change of clothing. The mother put on a cotton pants-suit – a flowered top and tapered trousers – and within an hour they were driving to the Christmas party. They drove up to a gracious red-brick house, surrounded by large gardens, and, bursting with pride, took their new daughter in to meet their family. The baby’s grandparents – well-coiffed, elegant, warm – welcomed their third grandchild into their house for the first time. Her aunts and uncles cooed and kissed her, and her two little cousins, only a couple of years older than her – peered at her with interest.
Despite the heat, they sat down to a large, hearty, English-style Christmas lunch: a turkey, a ham, stuffing, roast potatoes, various vegetables, followed by Christmas pudding with coins inside, mince-pies and brandy butter. There was jollity: crackers and silly hats. The new baby slept in her carry-cot, unaware that she was attending her first party. Her mother sat at the table, but her heart was with her baby, whose tiny hands fluttered as she slept.
It’s completely fitting that the first place I went to after leaving hospital was a Christmas feast. Feasts are the way I like to celebrate. I’ve just finished a weekend of birthday celebrations and the focus for me was the food. We had a dinner party for some friends rich with north African and Spanish cuisine. The menu was: hummus, basil and goat’s cheese dip, and baba ghanoush with delicious bread, followed by harissa roast chickens with potatas bravas and three salads: tabbouleh, carrot and cumin salad and pomegranates with cucumber. Dessert was walnut, lemon and cardamom cake with creme fraiche. There were dates and membrillo on the table for picking. The next day, we had a German-style Kaffee und Kuchen nachmittag with an almond cake, gingerbread muffins and a chocolate cake courtesy of friends. After the coffee, we had a restorative sherry, put on some African music and danced with our kids.
This Christmas week is not only about feasts and fests, but also about births. Having just finished the washing up (but not all the cakes), the next celebration on the cards is my daughter’s birthday. Daisy was born at home, and the thrill and excitement of her birth completely matches the joy of parenting her. We celebrate her birthday reminding ourselves of the blinding surprise she gave us by arriving at home before we could leave for hospital.
So it’s a big day for Daisy, with her kindergarten and home parties on the same day. She will require two sets of cakes and yummy things to eat – probably a plain sponge cake baked in the teddy bear cake tin and chocolate muffins for kindergarten, and maybe a chocolate cake and lemon muffins for the home birthday. There will have to be party games, some crafting action, definitely a bit of wild and noisy play, and then some supper – possibly mini pizzas and sausages – before her little friends are collected and we can put one tired, sugar-wired birthday girl to bed.
Almost as soon as we finish with Daisy’s birthday, our Christmas plans step into higher gear. If you came to my house for Christmas, you’d be served goose, not turkey, and red cabbage with apple. I can’t live without roast potatoes and my husband needs brussels sprouts, but we spruce them up with pancetta and chestnuts. There’d be no mince-pies, Christmas pudding or brandy butter, but there might be a lemongrass and raspberry trifle or a chestnut cheesecake.
The traditions that I grew up with are English, but my own little family is making its new traditions – a serving from our German environment, a slice from our English heritage, a large proportion from the land of our hearts, South Africa. I like to think we’re becoming citizens of the world.