/ 10 December 2022

Grinches have stolen this Christmas

In the spirit: A shopping mall in Bangkok, with its lights, streamers and colours, shows how Christmas should be celebrated. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP

President Cyril Ramaphosa is the Grinch who stole Christmas. What a disappointment he has been, this man we thought would save us and our beleaguered country after it had been plundered and pillaged by the venal Jacob Zuma and his fleecing friends.

When he was elected, we called it Ramaphoria and slapped each other on the back as we congratulated ourselves. We’d dodged a bullet. There were sighs of relief as we waited for the markets to recover, and for house prices to rise.

We thought he would sweep in change, and there would be some respite from the Zuma-era captured state of us. We put too much faith in the hands of a man who, while he has certainly not stolen from the state coffers, has let us down by turning out to be as unreliable as his predecessor.

We South Africans have had a difficult year, but Ramaphosagate has been the biggest festive season buzzkill.

To be accurate, it’s been going on since June when former chief spy Arthur Fraser spilled the beans, lodging a criminal complaint against the president — even though the money, claimed to amount to $4 million and stuffed into a couch on the Ramaphosa game farm Phala Phala, was apparently stolen in 2019.

It sounds like the plot of the B-grade skop, skiet en donder movie.

When parliament heard the pres might have broken the law and the voices calling for his impeachment grew ever more urgent, there was a moment when we were led to believe that he would resign. We sat on the edge of our seats, glued to the telly, biting our nails as we waited for the announcement.

The rand took a tumble — an astonishing 4% was knocked off its value at one stage. Uncertainty, the catchword of 2022, drilled yet more fear into the heart of us. 

Would he go? Wouldn’t he? 

As we know, he didn’t resign in the end, but not before his possible departure alerted South Africans to the dearth of potential successors who would be acceptable to us, to the world and to the World Bank.

Anything that ruins this holiday is infuriating.

I love everything about Christmas. I love the redness of it; the twinkle and sparkle of it. The canned jingles that ring out in shopping centres: Boney M with Mary’s Boy Child, instrumental Christmas medleys from pianist Richard Clayderman, the cheerfulness of Michael Bublé.

I love the bonhomie and the HoHoHo-ness of things. I love the excess, the food, the presents, the lights, the trees — real and fake. I’m partial to Christmas crackers, even those that fail to go bang when pulled at overladen Christmas tables. I love uncles who drink too much and grumpy teenagers who are disparaging about Aunty Mabel’s knitted sweater. I love schmaltzy Christmas movies and watch and rewatch Love Actually and The Sound of Music and Notting Hill every year. 

All of it. It’s thrilling.

There’s a heightened aliveness at Christmas, a time that allows us to pause, take stock, sing carols off-key, eat turkey, chipolata sausages, Figgy pudding (with or without the tickeys of my childhood) and home-made mince pies. 

I love midnight Mass, the eager faces of children shining in the candlelight, the fall of the shadows inside the church, the smell of incense, and the candles. The soloist chorister singing Panis Angelicus; the choir putting their back into Ave Maria in Latin.

We get the chance to shop, shop, shop, to wish each other well and, replete, feel refreshed and renewed enough to begin another year.

If these are not your traditions then I’m sure you have some other way of marking 25 December and the weeks that lead up to it. Christmas is no longer the preserve of Christians — it seems to be a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon.

A few years ago, on Christmas Day in Chiang Mai in Thailand, I was astonished to see children on their way to school — dressed in Father Christmas hats, it must be said.

Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year.

Not this year I’m afraid.

It is hugely distressing that the spirit of Christmas is missing this year with a lacklustre run-up to my favourite holiday. 

What’s missing? 

Well, canned jingles in shopping centres. 

And lights! I miss the Christmas lights of my childhood … the kind that used to be strung over high streets. What excitement there was in the Naidoo household when we, bathed and fed and in our pyjamas, were tumbled into the car to be driven through Ladysmith, watching in awe the flashing Christmas lights — the white-bearded man himself, his sleigh and reindeer. Trees. Snowflakes.

What else is missing? Joy. 

Not much of that at the moment — and I don’t just mean the kind of despair caused by load-shedding and water shortages and rising petrol costs. The world is in trouble. Ukraine is still in the grip of a war that began with the Russian invasion of that sovereign state in February. 

An old friend who lives in northern Germany tells the story of her Czech partner who witnessed the Russians march into Prague in September 1968. The helplessness of his family was relived by the invasion of Ukraine and triggered such intense feelings in him that he immediately put his name down to house refugees. The first family arrived in July, a young mother with two small children whose menfolk had been left behind to fight.

This is a bleak and lonely Christmas for the small, incomplete family. Thoughts of husbands, fathers and brothers — and those families who have not wanted to or been able to leave — in Kyiv battling no power, an icy Tundra winter, and the daily threat of death as missiles rain down on the country kill any attempt at good cheer.

Multiply that by the tens of thousands of families affected by war.

I yearn for a happier time. We are much in need of good cheer.

As Jethro Tull sing in their Christmas Song: “Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.