You know it's time for Christmas when Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose. But in the southern hemisphere, Christmas is celebrated in high summer.
Cooling down for a hot Christmas
When the mercury drops down to the lowest digits, when mittens and scarves are pulled out of cupboards, and when the first snowflakes fall it's time for Christmas.
In Germany, it's hard to believe Christmas is only two weeks away. With temperatures averaging between 5° Celsius in Cologne, 2° in Berlin and 0° in Munich, it's still too warm for the festive season. Meteorologists are even forecasting mild 10° weather for the 25th - so a white Christmas is definitely out of the picture. South of the equator, though, it's even less likely.
When Europe freezes, or at least sneezes, South Africans enjoy balmy 30° weather. Air-conditioned shopping malls in Cape Town are about as far as you can get from the chilly Christmas markets in Germany, but the South Africans, just like their fellow sun gatherers in Australia and Brazil, try to keep up the spirit of a winter wonderland during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
"Dreaming of a white Christmas"
Despite the heat, snow abounds in the southern hemisphere. It glistens in the store windows, leaves frosted etchings on buildings and coats tropical trees. It's all fake, primarily processed from spun plastic and white spray paint. But if you're standing next to an air conditioning vent in just a T-shirt and shorts, you'll get the sense of a cool white Christmas.
Although many people in Germany yearn for a beachside holiday under palm trees, not everyone is ready to completely sacrifice the typical winter atmosphere of a European Christmas for sun and warmth. This is especially true the further south you go.
There seems to be a direct correlation between the chances of snow fall and the desire to keep old world Christmas traditions alive. The less likely snow is, the more likely it is for people to simulate a winter wonderland.
In Australia, as elsewhere, shopping malls tend to drum up the season for the sake of profits. They blast Christmas carols like "Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" over loudspeakers until people actually start believing the bright sunlight on the beach reflects off a snowy landscape.
"Dashing through the snow"
In the southern hemisphere, temperatures peak in December, so the first thing on most people's mind is swimming and barbecuing - not sledding and roasting chestnuts.
In Europe, Christmas Day is usually spent with the family, sitting around the fire or the Christmas tree exchanging stories and eating rich foods - the perfect pastime for unpleasant weather. In South Africa, Australia and Brazil, it's far too hot to stay indoors, so families engage in what are otherwise summer activities up north.
South Africans meet for a big barbecue or scuttle brie on the poolside. The food is light and summery. The traditional turkey is baked and left in the fridge to chill for a day, making a cool main dish accompanied by fresh salads. People drink "sun-downers", refreshing cocktails at sunset, taking it easy until all the Christmas lights go on late in the evening.
In Australia people meet on the beach for a pick-up game of cricket and a seafood barbecue. Even Santa sheds his velvet cloak in favor of Bermuda shorts and shades. And his sled is pulled by a team of kangaroos.
Brazilians go to church and then spend the afternoon of the 25th on the beach with family. Because it's the start of the yearly "summer" vacations, most people spend the holidays at their beach houses. In the city, the houses are aglow with bright colored lights, Santa Clauses on rooftops, and reindeer grazing on front lawns. It doesn't matter that these Nordic creatures prefer snow over tropical heat, the Brazilians import them anyway and compete for the brightest, most colorful light display.
"O Christmas Tree, how are thy leaves so verdant"
The Christmas tree, the focal point of all seasonal decorations up north, is traditionally a fir tree. In the southern hemisphere, however, temperatures are too high for fir trees to grow.
In South Africa, the summer sun forces people to look for different types of Christmas trees. Plastic "evergreens" imported from Asia are popular choices, especially as they can be used year after year without losing their needles. In Brazil, pine trees are a favorite natural alternative. And in India people rely on banana and mango trees to "spruce" up their houses for the holiday season.
Hawaii residents can't quite get used to palm trees in place of conifers. Year after year they eagerly await the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship from Matson Navigation Company, an import company specializing in bringing hard-to-get products to the islanders. On Thanksgiving Day, when the company unloads its annual shipment of Oregon firs, Hawaiians line the docks to get a good first pick.
Feliz Natal! Geniet jou Kersfees! Whether you wish someone a Merry Christmas in Hawaiian, Portuguese or Afrikaans, the sentiment is the same. And no matter where you are - lounging on a beach or walking through a snow covered landscape - the taste, sound and feel of Christmas is shared throughout the world, at least as long as imagination and good quality plastic are around.