Christmas cheer was thin on the ground last year. Despite my best intentions, the week leading up to my final essay submission demanded a slog of sleepless nights and soul-searching doubt. Just when I thought I was free to relax into the holidays, the UK government shocked everyone by declaring a stay-at-home order with less than 24 hours notice.
Even so, God was good to me.
Having celebrated the last two Christmases in the southern hemisphere, I wasn’t anticipating what a difference the atmosphere of a wintry northern European town would make. As I criscrossed the streets of Oxford, en route to sessions booked at the library (a week in advance, minimum!), I smiled to see evergreens, lights, and all the traditional trappings.
Our British and Australian representatives instructed my German flatmate and me in the art of pulling Christmas crackers – an activity I’ve only ever encountered in the pages of Harry Potter. They confided in us secret maneuvers for securing the prize, but generously allowed us newbies to claim the win for our first time.
Encouraged to share some Christmas traditions in return, I polled the group: What are your favorite Christmas cookies?
To which, the shocking reply: What are Christmas cookies?
Even more shocking: When I vowed to rectify the situation by assembling some peppermint bark, the local grocery stores denied me – no peppermint candies in stock! English people don’t eat peppermint?! If anyone can unravel this mystery, please come forward.
Meanwhile, Audrey continues to bless me with her artful yet heartfelt hospitality, in between countryside rambles that acquainted me with more and more faces of the Oxford milieu.
My seminars wrapped up in Week 6, leaving an entire month of nothing but research and paper writing to unfold before me. Tuesdays through Thursdays found me in the Pusey House library. They celebrated the year’s end with a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life, which I had the honor of introducing! Our librarian Jessica also produced a booklet of art and poetry contributed by the grateful community, including myself.
Spare time outside of the library bore fruit in greater scope for culinary experiments, including chicken liver with handmade biscuits – “It’s very Southern,” I tried to explain to my mystified British friends.
As most students trickled away by Week 8, I snagged seats in Oxford’s more popular libraries. When I visited the Old Bodleian again after weeks away, its majesty and grandeur staggered me.
Beyond this entrance to the Old Bodleian Library, you enter a courtyard ringed in doorways. Above each door, an inscription resounds with the Latin fields of learning:
natural philosophy… music… astronomy…
rhetoric… logic… metaphysics…
geometry… arithmetic… language (Hebrew and Greek)…
grammar… history… moral philosophy…
jurisprudence… and medicine.
It stands in tribute to classical education, when from a single point radiated all knowledge.
A happy conjunction of factors at the Radcliffe Camera impressed me with another magnificent display: sunset over the rooftops. It’s a rare treat, compared with my daily dose in the Lebombo Mountains (where a relatively undisturbed skyline guaranteed spectacular views). I also had to thank the shortened daylight hours this time of year in England – a mixed blessing, as I farewelled the sun in my last hour of studying then scurried home in the dark.
More prosaic but no less impressive, the Blackwell’s bookstore boasts the largest room devoted to books on display – in the world!
I wandered the shelves while Christmas shopping, discovering another space around every corner: three floors, rare books, Harry Potter merchandise, and blank notebooks costructed from recycled covers… tempting, but not at the price of 24 GPB each!
The kind Reverend Anthony invited me for tea and some much-needed counsel at St Michael’s, the city church of Oxford. Their tower dates back to almost a thousand years ago – a mind-boggling time scale.
By the grace of God, I submitted my first term paper on time: comparing the cognitive models of intratextual literature in novels by Sol Plaatje and an Afrikaner contemporary, Laurens van der Post. My professor, classmates, family, and friends all made it possible – especially my long-suffering sister Stephanie, who patiently discussed structure and composition for hours on end with me.
Faint with relief, I packed my bags and boarded the bus to London. The national lockdown scuppered our plans for an overnight tour of Nottingham, but that weighed little in my estimation. I was just grateful to be with my South African friends for the holidays, again: Against all the odds, we found ourselves in one home again, celebrating together for the third year in a row. Eleven months had passed since Maryna last gave me one of her soul-warming hugs. I had imagined (and even dreamed about!) that moment so many times that it felt surreal to finally experience it. We squashed into the train together, spilled out onto a busy street, then traced the river home, mixing English and Afrikaans as I put my language self-study to the test.
With our options limited to walking and time indoors, Maryna made the most of it by exercising her paintbrush for the first time in decades (since she gave up art to raise a family). With her typical generosity of spirit, she provided materials for everyone else, too – from myself to three-year-old Benjamin.
When my family asked whether we managed anything fun for Christmas Day, I assured them, “Oh, there’s a three-year-old here — we had a real Christmas!” Benjamin’s enthusiasm and Anu’s bountiful gifts transported me back to childhood days, even without the snow. The family thrilled me with their present of an Afrikaans dictionary (much to my brother Michael’s amusement).
Amused by a reference to tamales in Benjamin’s Christmas cartoon, I decided to treat my friends to a more accessible family dish from my mother’s side: enchiladas.
The local Sainsbury obligingly provided corn tortillas (stocked alongside DIY enchilada kits!), and I invested in a block of orange cheese.
When a bowl of grated orange shavings greeted Benjamin, he pronounced it, “Wortel!” (carrot) and wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise until he had sampled some.
Along with daily treks to the neighborhood parks, we snuck one day trip: to the expansive Maidstone park and then the beach at Hastings. Bundled from head to toe and gaping in disbelief at the swimmers, I consulted Google Maps as to what would greet us if we set sail in a straight line to the horizon. To my astonishment, we were facing Paris! Somehow it had never clicked before that France represented the sunny south for the English.
On the 8th of January, I turned twenty-eight years old. “That’s practically thirty,” I told Maryna and Anu — they did not concur. They did celebrate the occasion with fanfare: lavishing on me a coconut cake, mouthwatering dinner, wrapped presents, and even balloons! Just like this time last year, the family made me feel loved and cherished, at home across the ocean.
All too soon, it was time to pack my bags again. We suffered some transportation mishaps — Maryna and Daniel’s flight home rescheduled with a few hours’ notice, my bus route suspended due to low traffic — but everything sorted out in the end. Then it was back to Oxford (via the train from Paddington this time): nervous about life under the new lockdown but comforted in the prayers and love of my friends.