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Holiday Traditions in South Africa

Hello, howzit, sani bonani, dumelang, and sawbona! Welcome to the vibrant world of holiday traditions in South Africa. As a country with diverse cultures and heritage, I am proud to call this nation my home! It’s no secret that our breathtaking coastlines, mesmerizing mountain-scapes, and abundance of wildlife continues to draw in visitors from all over the world. However, I believe that the true essence of South Africa lives within the warmth of our people and a diversity that, somehow, unifies us all. 

That is why I am so excited to dive into the many wonderful ways we celebrate throughout the year! From borderline chaotic family gatherings and braais to intimate dinners and last-minute trips to the beach; holiday traditions in South Africa are certainly as colorful as our country’s inhabitants. Read below to learn what a year in the Rainbow Nation looks like, and how you can send gifts to your loved ones in South Africa with Gift Baskets Overseas

holiday traditions in south africa south african family sitting together in front of christmas tree

Holiday Traditions in South Africa (And the Best Gifts to Give)

A “melting pot” wouldn’t begin to describe the multiculturalism that is South Africa. Thinking back to my childhood, I had befriended people from various cultural backgrounds, tasted a variety of traditional dishes, and even learned Zulu (the indigenous language of the Nguni people) by a relatively young age. My conclusion? It’s almost impossible for South Africans to ignore our diversity! It paints our nation in all sorts of colors. And, our holiday celebrations are no exception. 

When I said I would show you what a year in South Africa would look like, I meant just that! Consider the below both a summary of my life as a native South African, and, conveniently, a deep dive into the festive celebrations and traditions of my beautiful country!

Warning: Our celebrations involve a lot of “braaing”.

January: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 

Full disclosure, if you’re not spending it with family or at a festival, most South Africans have no idea how they’re celebrating the new year until New Year’s Eve! But, once last-minute plans are in the works, the celebration usually consists of a braai (barbeque if you will) and drinks with those closest to you. House parties are also a common way South Africans celebrate the coming of a new year. 

On New Year’s Day, beaches are packed to the brim! And, if you aren’t willing to brave the crowds, your friend/neighbor with a pool is your next best bet. Although gift-giving is not common during this time, South Africans will never say “no” to a new year gift basket

April: Good Friday and Easter Sunday 

When it comes to celebrating Good Friday in South Africa, there is one traditional dish that encapsulates the entire day; pickled fish! If you’re unfamiliar with this divine cuisine sent by the (Cape Malayan) Gods, let me clue you in. Pickled fish is a Cape Malayan dish consisting of fish pickled in a mixture of salt, sugar, bay leaves, vinegar, and water. My grandmother has her own special recipe by which she adds ground cumin, curry powder, black peppercorns, and a few other ingredients to give it a kick! 

Pickled fish is said to originate from the early Cape colony. Since fishing boats would not go out over the Easter weekend, pickling fish was a smart (and delicious) method to preserve it until Easter Sunday. Today, many South Africans have their own spin on the dish. And, it is most commonly enjoyed with hot cross buns! 

We celebrate Easter similarly to the rest of the world; easter egg hunting and a big Sunday lunch. And, South Africans certainly welcome traditional Easter gifts

May: Mother’s Day

Almost every Mother’s Day, at the crack of dawn, my dad would wake up my sister and me to help him prepare a surprise breakfast for my mom. Later in life, I learned that most of my family members, and even friends, had the very same tradition engrained in them. Breakfast in bed, of course, is a universal act of service! But, when it comes to celebrating Mother’s Day in South Africa, this meal is, dare I say, a monumental part of the occasion. Whether it’s serving it to her in bed, or taking her out to her favorite brunch spot, South African moms love their breakfast! 

Beyond this tradition, however, Mother’s Day celebrations in the rainbow nation are much like other countries. Flowers and chocolates are among the most popular Mother’s Day gifts, while our local parks and gardens are filled with families celebrating the women figures in their lives. Learn more about spoiling your mom who lives far away with our Long Distance Mother’s Day Gifts blog! 

July: Nelson Mandela Day 

Mandela Day is not only celebrated in South Africa but is recognized globally as a day of service and activism. We honor this day by spending 67 minutes (representing the 67 years Nelson Mandela devoted to public service) or more engaging in community service, volunteering, cleaning our neighborhoods, and other charitable activities. 

While gift-giving is rare during this occasion, concerts, cultural performances, educational events, and exhibits can be enjoyed throughout South Africa. The essence of this celebration is honoring Mandela’s vision for a better world. And, acknowledging the work still needed to achieve his ideals. 

September: Heritage Day 

As I mentioned previously, diversity is what makes South Africa unique. So much so, that we have an entire month dedicated to honoring the cultural wealth of our nation. The bulk of the festivities, however, occur on the 24th of September. South Africans wear traditional clothing, eat traditional foods, and learn more about the many cultures that make up our vibrant country. 

You may or may not know that South Africans also refer to this celebration as “Braai Day”. And, to be honest, I only recently learned why! A man named Jan Scannell began a National Braai Day initiative in 2005. By 2007, Archbishop Desmond Tutu jumped on board as the patron of South Africa’s Braai Day. Throwing on an apron and grilling some boerewors may sound like the most unlikely way to unite a country that was once torn apart. But, that is truly the power of braai! There is nothing more South African than lighting a fire and cooking a meal with friends and family. It is a tradition that continues to transcend racial, religious, social, and cultural boundaries. 

Coastline in Cape Town, South Africa

Christmas in South Africa Part 1: Dezemba! 

When it came time to write this part of the article, I had already been in search of clever ways to describe what “Dezemba” is to readers who may not know. And, I can tell you that my search was in vain. An error for which only I am to blame. As a South African, I should know that this concept simply cannot be explained, only experienced! Over many years I’ve heard my fellow locals say that Dezemba is a lifestyle, a feeling. And, only now that I can’t put it into words, do I realize they are absolutely right! But, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

In South Africa, the festive season begins in November. And, while this may be true for most parts of the world, South Africans have a knack for disregarding boundaries. In these days leading up to December, you can already feel the tom-foolery setting in like a fever. From workdays feeling longer to weekends feeling even sweeter. And, once the 1st of December hits, the festive frenzy activates, usually consisting of parties, beach trips, braais, drinking, and most importantly, overspending! 

Upon my unsuccessful research quest, I did come across a Reddit forum that provides insight from other South Africans as to what “Dezemba” is. Here’s my favorite answer: 

South Africa shuts down from around the 15th of December until around 7 January every year. As in, everything stops, companies close down for the period, and there’s a skeleton staff (usually the poor sods without kids) who man the head offices. Retail ramps up and overtime is to be made with extended shopping hours for the masses who are on leave.

It’s also time for annual bonuses so a lot of people have a little extra in their wallets.

We slow down to a stroll, we braai almost daily and we complain about the heat. We swim if we have a pool. If your family is far away you’ll arrange your transport for the 15th and you load up to go “home”.

In short, the country takes a break from the past year’s hardships and makes noises about how we’re going to win the lotto next year and that it’ll be better.

Christmas Part 2: Holiday Traditions in South Africa

You’ll be relieved to know that Christmas isn’t just about partying way past your financial limit! We’ve got some wholesome holiday traditions in South Africa too: 

The Ultimate South African Holiday Food Tradition: Glazed Gammon

On the 25th of December 2018, my life changed forever. Well, at least on a culinary level. My aunt had prepared the most delicious gammon I had ever tasted in my life! And, to this day, my and my sister’s mouths still water whenever we talk about it (an amount which is probably not healthy). Gammon, a sliced piece of pork from a pig’s hind leg, is a Christmas classic in South Africa. It’s so good, we dig in from the leftovers on Boxing Day too! 

Now, you’re probably thinking; why not roast turkey or lamb? A few reasons: 

  • It’s too hot! Christmas occurs during summer in South Africa. So, we’re not necessarily in the mood for heavy winter food that will only make for an uncomfortable nap! We usually serve gammon with light sides and salads. 
  • It takes less time to prepare than you’d think! 
  • It’s more affordable compared to the prices of lamb, turkey, or duck. 

The die-hard aunties often buy their gammon a few months in advance and cure it a few days before Christmas lunch. But, the real magic lies in the glaze. Many people follow their own recipes using a variety of ingredients like maple syrup, chili, ginger, brandy, cherries, and even Coke. If you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, gammon makes for a delicious sandwich too! 

Holiday Gift-Giving  

If you plan on sending gift baskets to South Africa this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that South Africans are generally not picky gift recipients. Blame it on Dezemba, or the fact that we’re just nice, it really is the thought that counts around here! But, we do have some holiday gift-giving traditions that we hold dear: 

We Open Gifts on Christmas Day, But Only After Church or Appetizers – Christmas gifts are top secret! And, for some reason, an activity (or just eating) must take place before we start exchanging them. 

South Africans Love a Good Secret Santa – When you come from a big family, like myself, secret Santa is a budget-friendly way to make sure everyone gets a gift! 

Parents Often Splurge on Christmas Gifts For the Kids – Watching my cousins get sneakers whilst I discovered a pair of socks in my gift box was one of many defining moments of adulthood. 

New Clothing is a Popular Christmas Gift – South Africans love wearing new attire on Christmas Day, and even throughout the festive season. 

Beautiful Wrapping Paper/Gift Presentation is Appreciated – Of course, everyone likes a beautifully wrapped gift, but South Africans love it! Good packaging will already have your SA recipient adoring their gift. 

Why Send Gifts to South Africa With Gift Baskets Overseas 

Sending gifts to South Africa with Gift Baskets Overseas offers a seamless experience rooted in expertise! Our seasoned professionals understand the nuances of gifting in South Africa, ensuring the perfect choice for your recipient. With a knack for selecting culturally appropriate gifts, we cater to diverse tastes and occasions. 

Be it a celebratory event or a heartfelt gesture, our extensive collection of gift baskets provides a range of options, from gourmet treats to bespoke assortments. You can trust our proficiency in navigating international deliveries and ensuring timely and delightful surprises! 

Banter aside, South Africans are friendly, easy-going, and probably the easiest kinds of people to send gifts to! I hope this glimpse into our exhilarating holiday traditions has provided you with some gift inspiration. In a country so full of life and different cultural backgrounds, it feels nearly impossible to mention them all! But, this is only the beginning of our dive into South African holidays and gift-giving. For now, though, hamba kahle! 

Traditional South African handmade colorful beaded christmas balls representing holiday traditions.

Thank you for exploring Holiday Traditions in South Africa: