Holidays Past, Present and Future: Finding Common Ground When You ‘Come from Away’


This holiday season, Eastern Health is sharing some holidays traditions of our many diverse employees. This week, Zelda Burt from Corporate Communications shares stories of celebrated holidays while growing up in South Africa. Stay tuned next week for more from our employees about their festive celebrations!  

As they say here in Newfoundland and Labrador, I “come from away.” I’m Zelda Burt (née Kruger), a communications manager with Eastern Health, and for the first 14 years of my life, South Africa was the place I called home.

Zelda Burt (MA Comm), communications manager and employee of Eastern Health since 2011

When people first learn that I’m not a native to Canada and where I lived during my earlier years, many assume that I grew up with lions and giraffes in my backyard, or that I rode an elephant to school! But as exciting as that sounds – that was not my reality.

My parents and I left South Africa in 1996 to pursue new dreams in California, USA. I remember arriving with a suitcase in one hand and my parents by my side – the air was thick with bitter-sweet emotions and our hearts pounding of nervous-excitement! Five years later, we were blessed to move to Ottawa, Ontario, making Canada our new permanent home. This is where I met my husband who is a Newfoundlander through and through! Like many out-of-province Newfoundlanders who have a plan to get back home, my husband and I returned to St. John’s in 2011 to begin a new adventure “on the rock” together. The rest, as they say, is history!

But speaking of history, and with the holiday season fast approaching, I want to share some of my own cultural traditions, spread a little holiday cheer and hopefully peak your curiosity about what life is like in another part of the world during this time of year.

 Finding common ground

When I think about the holidays, I can find similarities between my Afrikaner culture and the one here in Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, if you were to ask an Afrikaner why they love their culture, they may respond by saying it’s because they are proud of their country and their mother tongue; and that they love the unique sayings in Afrikaans – which I may add are near impossible to translate into anything sensible in the English language! Or, we may say that we are proud of our abilities to get through some tough times, yet still be able to find joy and move forward. I’ve heard so many similar anecdotes from the people here in Newfoundland and Labrador – and this is what drew me into the culture here on this island.

Afrikaners may also cite their appreciation for all the simple pleasures their culture offers, such as having a “braai” (BBQ) when the mood strikes – paired with late-night visits surrounded by lots of friends and family. They also love their “potjie kos” (like a boil-up); watching a good game of rugby; and their traditional treats like biltong (beef jerky), koeksisters (a braided dough that is sweet, sticky and delicious), coffee and “beskuit” (rusks); or just some tea and “bikkies” when Pop and Nan come for a visit on Sunday afternoon.

Zelda’s Grandmother Nellie Kruger (née Prinsloo), Grandfather Atjie Kruger and Aunt Rosa Kruger making “potjie kos” in cast-iron stove pots ‘al fresco,’ 1949

While a lot of these little pleasures can be relatable to the Newfoundland and Labrador culture, one thing that is sure to be different is some of our holidays and Christmas traditions during the month of December.

Zelda and her family having a ‘braai’ (BBQ) during the holiday season, surrounded by lots of friends and family! (1982)

For example, leading up to Christmas, many South Africans recognize the Day of Reconciliation on December 16 – a national holiday inaugurated in 1994 to help the people of the nation reconcile with past events along with a promise of a shared future together. Prior to that, December 16 was known and celebrated by many in the Afrikaner culture as the Day of the Covenant. This day can be traced back to a historic battle involving the Voortrekkers which took place in 1838.

The Voortrekker Monument, South-Africa

Today, there is a magnificent 40-metre high Voortrekker Monument in the Tswane area (Pretoria). A granite cenotaph (empty grave) is the focal point of this historic site – the emblematic resting place of my ancestors who died during the Great Trek (1835 to 1846). Each year, so many people gather at the Monument to revisit history; attend a special service; and enjoy surrounding folk-festivals. Some people, ranging from babies to the elders, even dress up in historic attire to commemorate this day.

Zelda’s great-great-grand-uncle in traditional attire, Stephanus Johannes Paulus (Paul) Kruger, President of the South African Republic (Transvaal), 1899. Kruger Museum, Pretoria, South Africa

Today, December 16 also signifies hope for a beautiful and prosperous future for all the people of my mother country, regardless of race, belief system, ethnicity or other unique characteristics. The range of feelings that this day evokes is special to me because like Christmas, it brings together family and friends, a time to reflect on the past, along with well-wishes of hope, peace and unity for all.

Dreaming of a hot Christmas

However, the most obvious difference in the festive season between South Africa and Canada is that “back home,” Christmas falls in the dead heat of the summer. Unless you are on top of a mountain peak somewhere in the coldest region of the country – and probably in a different month – you will likely never experience a white Christmas where I’m from!

“Including family in any of our annual celebrations is #1! Without family, Christmas simply wouldn’t be the same.”

Zelda as an infant enjoying a picnic with her family in December 1982

 During this time of year, the schools are closed and often, families take their summer holidays where many retreat outlands to enjoy a vacation at the beach. Some families enjoy going camping, while others choose to stay in the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by lots of family and friends – and if their lucky – they have a pool so that the children can “take a dip” while the parents and grandparents work together to prepare the Christmas meal everyone has been waiting for.

An ox wagon was the primary method of transportation in the “olden days” in South Africa

Food is king

Food plays a major role in the Afrikaner Christmas tradition – we often joke by saying that the tables are screeching under the tablecloths like my ancestors’ ox wagons since they are so jam-packed with delicious options to feed a small army.

Since it’s so hot during the month of December, many families like to barbeque or “spit braai” for Christmas. A “spit” is our version of roasting something on an open fire! It’s South African slang for an outside, slow cooking rotisserie, which is operated by someone in the family who has the big responsibility of constantly basting the main attraction of the Christmas menu until it’s full of flavour and cooked to absolute perfection! On a “spit,” you will often find lamb, pork or beef. It’s never unusual to have more than one meat selection on the menu – it’s probably odd if you don’t!  For those who don’t want to cook outside, these meat options are cooked in the kitchen, most likely with Nan’s help or at least an old hand-scribbled family recipe with very unclear measurements of key ingredients.

Zelda wearing her favourite holiday dress (1987)

Traditional side dishes in the Afrikaner Christmas menu often include whole cooked potatoes that have been crisped or fried in a little duck fat. A popular side is “geelrys,” or yellow rice, which is rice cooked with turmeric and raisins – it’s as delicious as it is beautiful to look at. Other sides include pumpkin with a little bit of butter and sugar, spiced with just the right pinch of cinnamon. And of course, there is “boere boontjies,” which is green beans, cooked with finely chopped onion and a little bit of cubed potato. A side salad or two may include our traditional green pea and ham salad and potato salad – all of which are made from scratch.

Zelda’s holiday feasts then (1984) and more recently (2010)

Since South Africa’s coastline borders the Atlantic and Indian oceans, seafood is also plentiful, and a wide range of seafood often make its way to our barbeques for the holidays. For many who live by the sea, fresh hake, haddock, cod or kingklip, along with mussels, juicy pink prawns and more are part of our Christmas menus!

Before everyone sits down to indulge, the Christmas meal just wouldn’t be the same without first pulling a few crackers together. Everyone must put on those silly green and red paper hats and read aloud the half-funny jokes that they found on a tiny piece of paper on the inside of their cracker!

A pretty penny

 My grandparents and their children were very fond of Christmas “tiekie” (tickey, tuppence or two pence) pudding. This is a decadent Christmas desert that is boiled or steamed and made with what used to be expensive, luxury ingredients during the Great Depression era – nuts, dates, fruit and a variety of spices. Many times, scrubbed and sterilized coins such as tuppence (two cents) and tickeys (two-and-a-half cent coins) were included in the pudding batter. If you found one while you were enjoying your desert, you were considered lucky! The elders believed the coins would bring good luck and wealth in the new year ahead. The dessert is often topped with a beautiful sweet sauce or traditional cozy custard. Still to this day, many families enjoy this traditional dessert with or without pennies!

Zelda’s Grandma Nellie (1920) catching some sun during Christmas holidays (Johannesburg in December 1936)

Father Christmas and Prezzies

 Another small difference in our Christmas culture is how we refer to the jolly, bearded man in the red suit. We call him, Father Christmas and in the early 1980s, his suit was often made of red plastic-like material when he visited us. He also brought gifts for “kids from one to 92” in the biggest pillow case one has ever seen! Many families stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve to open all their “prezzies” (presents), while others are catching on to the more western tradition of opening presents on Christmas morning. Not many houses back home have chimneys, so Father Christmas must find other ways of sneaking presents under the faux, rainbow tinsel-adorned Christmas trees!

Zelda and her friends look on as Father Christmas finally arrives in South Africa, 1981

My new-found traditions

Moving to Canada was at first an adjustment for our family. There were so many changes not only culturally, but also weather-wise. As a child, I always wondered what it would be like to have a white Christmas; see homes and streets adorned with colourful lights; and stockings filled to the brim just like I saw in the movies. Now I’m so fortunate to experience that first-hand each year with the people I love dearly!

Family Christmas “snap” of Zelda, her husband Gordon and their daughter Olivia, St. John’s, 2016

Now that I have a small child, I think it’s important for her to know what Christmas was like when Mommy was a little girl. Each year, my husband and I find ways to incorporate some of my old traditions into our holiday celebrations here in Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, you’ll not only find a turkey on our Christmas table, but most likely a roast of lamb or beef too – not to mention some of my culture’s mouth-watering sides that colourfully dress up our dinner plates.

Each year as my family and I get ready to trim the tree; deck the halls; and hang up our stockings with care – a big smile comes across my face. When I look at my very own handknitted stocking, gifted to me from Nanny Burt of Old Perlican, I’m once again reminded that I’m part of a wonderful new-found tradition – one I am truly thankful for and so incredibly fortunate to be a part of.

Zelda and her family’s handknitted Christmas stockings

Wrapping it up

This holiday season, I am also thankful for an employer like Eastern Health who embraces diversity; cultural differences; and complimentary characteristics that make up the people of our beautiful province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Zelda at “Breakfast with Santa” at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, 2017.
Each year the Health Care Foundation and Morrison Healthcare Food Services host a breakfast feast for staff of Eastern Health in the St. John’s region. One hundred per cent of ticket sales ($7 per ticket) support the Foundation’s Comfort in Care™ program!

As you celebrate the holidays this year, remember that everyone has a story to tell, ranging from the family next door who “come from away,” the sick child at the Janeway, to the senior who calls an Eastern Health’s long-term care facility their home. Some people’s stories are tales of adventure and action. Many may have stories of happiness, but so many individuals in our communities experience heartbreak, loneliness or hardship during the holidays. This Christmas, take the time to find common ground with someone you don’t know – you might just learn something new or spread a little unexpected cheer to someone in need!

This article was written by Zelda Burt, communications manager with Eastern Health.

4 responses to “Holidays Past, Present and Future: Finding Common Ground When You ‘Come from Away’

  1. What a lovely story, Zelda, I really enjoyed reading it, especially since we have two CFAs in our home for Christmas (from two different countries), one who is experiencing winter for the first time ever as you did! Pretty exciting for all of us! Merry Christmas!!

  2. Pingback: Tis the Season, For Many Reasons: Happy Holiday Memories and Treasured Traditions from Eastern Health Employees | Eastern Health's StoryLine·

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