South African Christmas dinner traditions

South Africans share several of their Christmas traditions with the English who introduced many of their customs when British settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape in 1820. But they have developed many of their own uniquely South African traditions and continue to do so.

South Africa, as a former British colony, shares some of the traditions of the traditional English Christmas dinner.

Christmas dinner in the United Kingdom is usually eaten in the afternoon on 25 December. The dinner usually consists of turkey, pheasant, duck or goose, served with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce or redcurrant jelly; roast potatoes; and vegetables, particularly brussels sprouts and parsnips. The pudding course consists of Christmas pudding, which dates from medieval England, or plum pudding, trifle and mince pies with brandy butter, custard or cream. Christmas cake is also popular.

A rich, festive Christmas dinner in South Africa can be eaten any time from the evening of Christmas Eve to the evening of Christmas Day itself.

Turkey as main course

The evolution of turkey as the Christmas dinner main course took place in the 16th century. Popular history has it that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas. By the late 16th century turkeys were commonly served at English Christmas dinners. A 16th century English poem describes a Christmas spread containing “Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best, pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest”, along with cheese, apples, nuts and “good drink”.

Turkeys originated in the Americas (not in Turkey), where the large wild birds thrived. The Spanish introduced them to Europe, where they spread rapidly. A 1581 cookbook published in Frankfurt, Germany lists over 20 recipes for “Indian chicken” – one of the names turkeys were known by.

Christmas dinner in the Southern Hemisphere

As Christmas is a summer holiday in the Southern Hemisphere, many South Africans are choosing to have a more formal Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, allowing them to have a more relaxing Christmas Day. Previously it was a long-held tradition to have Christmas dinner in the early afternoon on Christmas Day. The trend is however shifting as more and more South Africans are choosing to have a braai on Christmas Day instead of a formal, sit-down lunch.

Braais are a popular way of enjoying the outdoors and exchanging the heat of the kitchen stove for the heat of braai coals. Whole flat chickens and deboned, butterflied legs of lamb are cooked in a kettle braai or on the braai. Innovative trifles for dessert remain a favourite as well as fresh fruit salads with whipped cream or ice cream.

As many South Africans spend their Christmas holiday at the coast, seafood on the braai is an ever popular Christmas option. Crayfish tails, lobster, mussels, prawns and line-fish are served as starters, or as the main meal.

Because it’s summer, another Christmas Day option is home cooked cold meats such as gammon, beef tongue and corned beef as well as turkey served with an endless variety of salads, all prepared in advance.