Would African traditional healers practise their art if they moved to Europe? Would they find suitable plants for age-old ceremonies? I imagine they’d find alternatives. I take a light-hearted look at how Europeans might follow their traditional Christmas practices around Livingstone. In my Scottish home, spiny holly leaves defended the brandy-soaked pudding from secret nibbling, and a glossy, red-fruited holly wreath was hung on the front door to add vibrant colour to the dark days of mid-winter. European holly (Ilex aquifolium), being evergreen, has symbolised eternal life since the time of the Druids of the pre-Christian era, and was believed to ward off evil spirits and lightning strikes.
Bunches of hemi-parasitic mistletoe (Viscum album) were suspended above open doors: when a man and a woman met under the mistletoe, they were obliged to kiss, plucking off one (non-edible) white berry each time. When all the fruits were gone, there was no more kissing! The aromatic, evergreen boughs of a conifer tree (most commonly Norway spruce, Picea abies) were adorned with candles, tinsel, and strings of twinkling white lights, imitating the sparkle of winter sunlight on snow-laden branches.
So, what might I find in the bush as substitutes for these decorative plants? Ximenia americana and X. caffra (sourplums) can take the place of holly, with their spiny branchlets and bright orange or red fruits. Like holly, X. caffra is believed to keep away bad spirits. After the celebrations are over, you can even eat the astringent fruits, but the seed-kernel is thought to be toxic.
African mistletoe, for example Tapinanthus, has perfect flowers for lighting the candles: their English name is ‘Burning Matches’. Unfortunately, they’re not in flower at this time of year, and their fruits are red, so a better choice would be the Christmas-berry, Flueggea virosa, with its snow-white berries. Make sure you pick fruit-laden branches for the home: you’ll have the added benefit of being able to eat the little berries, as well as having lots of kisses!
As we don’t have conifers around here, we’re going to have to be very creative with our Christmas tree. One suggestion comes from a friend who grew up in Western Province with a Scottish mother: he described how they would cut down the tall flowering stem of a sisal plant (Agave americana) and spray-paint it silver!
I’m wondering if this all seems a bit crazy to those who haven’t experienced a Christmas in the far north. Although I haven’t gone completely mad, I will admit to being a little Christmas-crackers!
More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)
More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Livingstone Destination Profile
More articles in this series:
Don't eat the daffodils (ZT, Issue 14, Sept 2013)
Rainforest Riches (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
Berry banquet (ZT, Issue 12, March 2013)
Marvellous Mangoes (ZT, Issue 11, December 2012)
Underground Forests (ZT, Issue 10, September 2012)
The healing powers of Aloes (ZT, Issue 09, June 2012)
Dogbane Drugs (ZT, Issue 08, March 2012)
Devil’s Claw (ZT, Issue 07, December 2011)
Elephant Toothpicks (ZT, Issue 06, Sept 2011)