November 22, 2012

Christmas Shopping in Joburg

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Oh dear, how embarrassing, I thought. We’re in the middle of spring, and the Woolworth’s here in the Cresta Shopping Mall still has Christmas decorations along the walls. How could they have forgotten about them?

But then I realized they hadn't forgotten about them at all, that they were actually busy hanging up wreaths. It dawned on me that in South Africa, Christmas comes AFTER spring, and that it sits right in the middle of a long, sunny, and hot summer.

I was in trouble. We had two toddlers for whom Christmas was THE highlight of the year, and we had family visiting from abroad. And I was responsible to whip up a magical Christmas celebration. Under foreign circumstances and without any experience.

Until my husband and I moved to South Africa with our kids, we had always celebrated Christmas with one set of parents first and the other afterwards, and had returned well fed and happy to our own home that was only sporting a few decorations here and there. We’d never had a Christmas tree, but now my family was bound to expect one, in a country where you can’t find proper fir trees.

But it was only mid-October, and I was not in Christmas mood. I was frankly more concerned about keeping the pool blue (instead of an ugly green due to the spring storms) and preventing the junior team from falling into it. Only towards the end of November did I finally take a trip to the home decoration and interior shops. I learned that there were basically three options of decorating your house for Christmas:

Option 1 - dress it up in golden glitter like a Las Vegas show girl.
Option 2 - ‘little English cottage’ style complete with red-and-green checked ribbons, a reindeer, and a red-cheeked Father Christmas smiling benevolently.
Option 3 - beach house design, a cool mixture of turquoise, silver and white.

Our house is a Tuscan style, with yellow walls and terracotta roof tiles, and I couldn't see any of these three styles working in our home. I was lucky enough to secure the last artificial Christmas tree Woolworth’s was selling – South Africans are not only early risers, but they also buy their Christmas stuff early – and realized I had to improvise for our first Christmas celebration in South Africa.

But that was a few years ago, and in the meantime I’ve come to find that the style and variety of the Christmas decorations in the shops has improved. Or has my taste changed? It’s hard to tell. Anyway, and more importantly, I have learned that my preferred interior shops are only one option for Christmas decorations, ornaments and gifts, and that there is much more out there for your Christmas shopping needs.

For instance nurseries cum garden shops:

GardenShop is a chain of stores in Broadacres, Bryanston, Parktown North and Edenvale. They do not only sell plants, but also artificial Christmas trees (aha!) and everything that goes with them. Every year towards the end of October their decorators stage a few trees in different styles, giving you ideas. And of course they also sell the ornaments and fairy lights that are exhibited.
Lifestyle Garden Centre in Randpark Ridge does the same, and their specialty seems to be elaborately decorated Christmas dinner tables.

Christmas displays at Woolworth's supermarket

As you may know, arts and crafts are an inseparable part of life in South Africa, and craft markets are the ideal place to find them. These markets go all out towards the end of the year to display Christmas ornaments and gifts.

The Rooftop Market at Rosebank Mall is a classic address for artifacts and crafts from the entire African continent, but also a treasure trove for pictures and delicatessen. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, you will find its 600+ stalls exhibiting and selling a wide variety of Christmas ornaments. I bought beaded angels for our Christmas tree, and friends of ours got a baobab tree made out of wire. This market is open every Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

The Bryanston Organic and Natural Market is another one of Joburg’s must-see markets . In this outdoor market on the grounds of the local Waldorf School, you will find organic food and delicatessen but also many original handcrafted goods like ceramics, shoes and jewelry. I bought beaded leather flip-flops there for my overseas nieces; they make a unique present, but are flat and light to carry in a suitcase. This market is open on Thursdays and Saturdays from 9am to 3pm. Every Tuesday evening from 13 November to 18 December at 5 to 9pm it turns into the ‘Magical Moonlight Markets’.

The Irene Village Market is a delightful exhibition of artists and crafters, home industries, antiques, and collectibles, with over 300 stalls on the grounds of the Smuts House Museum. Awarded ‘Best Market in Africa’ by Getaway magazine, it is a treasure trove for quality products. I couldn't resist the wooden ‘pictures’ they sell, and I loved the distinctive Afrikaans flavour. Normally this market is only open every second Saturday from 9am to 2pm, but from the beginning of November up to 17 December 2012 they will be open every Saturday for Christmas shoppers.

Kamers vol geskenke is a website that calls itself ‘a creative feast of handmade products’, created by a team sourcing fresh, new, and high-end craft products. They will host an exhibition in Irene, Pretoria, from November 25 to December 1, 2012. Opening hours are daily 8:30am to 5pm, except for Sunday (4 to 8pm) and Friday (8:30am to 8pm).

Unica Market 2012 has been recommended by a friend of mine. This craft market helps raising funds for Unica School for Learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. It takes place in Pretoria from 30 November to 8 December 2012, and the opening hours are daily from 9am to 9pm, except for Sundays and the last day (Saturday 8 December), when the market closes at 4pm.

Now, before you head off for some serious Christmas shopping, let me give you a word of warning: If you hail from the Northern hemisphere like me, spare some thoughts to how and where you will celebrate the holidays.

We found that we needed a totally new concept for Christmas in summer because we basically live on the patio during the hot season. Which consequently meant that our Christmas tree found its place outdoors, on our patio, too.

The real (well – artificial* of course) Christmas tree, in any case. Because we also purchased an African-style, metal ‘tree’, too… And somehow, after several years in Africa, our Christmas decorations have become an eclectic mixture of traditional and rather exotic ornaments.

Real candles on your Christmas tree – doesn't work. They become lopsided in the heat and look punch drunk. I don’t like it, but we are using chains of light, called fairly lights.

Sending Christmas cards is not really on because the South African post service is so bad, especially around Christmas. There is usually a long gap in our mail delivery from mid-December to mid-January, at which time all of a sudden our mailbox is stuffed with all the letters and magazines that were posted weeks ago. Forget about sending parcels via the post service, they will arrive too late or even get stolen.

Baking cookies is also a bit of a challenge. I usually don’t bother much, it’s simply too hot! We usually bake one set of cookies, just for the kids’ experience.

And now: Have fun Christmas shopping!

*Note by editor: Real trees are also to be had in Johannesburg, if you can find it in your heart to call the sad excuse for an evergreen tree “real.” See Christmas in Joburg and Where to Find a Tree.

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.info Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.