Dressing for Christmas

  • Posted on December 12, 2012

It is Christmas in the next few weeks. Johannesburg discharges countless people from various parts of South Africa, neighbouring countries and overseas, who had been accommodated in the city throughout the year. Although this city is known for its filthy state, chaotic rush, endless traffic congestion, unruly and impolite taxi drivers, during this time it usually has a quiet aura. Migrant labourers that had been grinding the rock throughout the year, workers in the informal and formal sectors, documented and undocumented immigrants leave the city to spend time with their loved ones.

These immeasurable numbers of people and the locals typically take hefty luggage home from the city. Those who live in neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland would have a range of items such as foods, petroleum products, some furniture and, of interest to this paper, clothes. Clothes among African people in South Africa form a significant part of the Christmas celebration. Traditionally, every year parents in different areas of South Africa buy their kids sets of clothes for Christmas celebrations. These brand new clothes are worn on Christmas day and New Year’s day. Those whose parents managed to save a little more for this tradition would also put on a new outfit on on Christmas eve, Boxing day and New Year’s eve. The practice of dressing for Christmas has also become an inducement for children to perform exceptionally in their school work.

Where does this long-standing tradition of dressing for Christmas come from? Who instigated it and how did it become so ingrained especially within the African communities? I have explored these questions with a few random participants born within African communities pre 1994. None of them seem to comprehend the genesis of this tradition, except for the obvious fact that it has a long history. I began to think of possible explanations for why parents would dress their children as part of celebrating Christmas.

My first suggestion is that dressing children for Christmas could perhaps be symbolic of the birth of Christ. The brand new clothes are possibly a representation of birth and purity, all attributes which are related to Christ. However given the history of Christianity in South Africa, that is widely documented especially from the mid 1800s, the question that arises is whether this tradition of dressing for Christmas only became popular after the entrenchment of Christianity or whether it is a tradition with pre-colonial roots. One thing for sure is that clothing and Christianity have a very long intertwined history. Thus the contact of Africans with Mission Societies led not only to conversion but also to most African men clothed in fancy suits – an indication of progression, class and status. Although this is a possible assumption, it falls short in that there are African Christians whose faith cannot be questioned for not dressing their children for Christmas.

This leads to the second suggestion that the migrant labour system in South Africa may have contributed to this tradition. Most migrants are forced by circumstances to leave their families in remote villages. These families live through small remittances sent during the year, until the arrival of the bread winner for the festive season. Often these migrants bring with them clothes and other items that they could not carry or afford during the year. Gugulethu, for instance, recalls that: ‘Often back in the days, a father who is coming home would bring, among other things, black trousers and shoes which would be worn at Church on Christmas day and used for school purposes when the school term begins.’ Yet again this supposition does not explain why some Africans in townships who had never been migrants also practise the same tradition.

Could this tradition therefore be an excuse to spend money during the festive season given that many during this time earn double salaries in the form of ‘bonuses’? Even so, how did a tradition so ambiguous in its origins become so entrenched among Africans? Moreover, why is this tradition deep-rooted within African families than other families of a different ‘races’? (Or is it? Does it perhaps exist among other ‘racial’ groupings?) What mode has been used to pass this tradition from one generation to another? Was it through word of mouth or was it simply through practice? Why is it that at a certain age, parents stop buying their children clothes for Christmas? Is it symbolic, or is it that parents at a later age no longer want to spend the same amounts on Christmas clothes? Could it be that being a teenager comes with different responsibilities, forcing parents to prioritise other things?

Whatever the answer for the questions raised above, it serves as an interesting project to interrogate some of the traditions that are entrenched and continued by various segments our societies. The random people I spoke to about the tradition of dressing children for Christmas seemed perplexed that I was asking about a norm that has long been espoused. Their response seemed to suggest that they have simply welcomed a tradition that has always been practised and that since it has such a long history, there is no need to question where it comes from, its symbolism and transmittance. Perhaps we need to begin to think about such celebratory traditions and to debunk their origins for the cyber and multiracial generation may catch us off guard with such questions relating to the origins of traditions which we cannot simply answer by stating that ‘that’s how it has always been’. 

Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng

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