Christmas past?

What’s your best Christmas memory? I have a few. I remember my first African Christmas. It was SO hot and my mom insisted on cooking the turkey with all the trimmings – we just lived in a little two bedroom apartment with no air conditioning and bear in mind that Christmas in Southern Africa happens in the middle of their summer. It was very strange to us. We had this huge meal and then after my mom collapsed on the bed with the fan on to have a rest my sister, brother and I went down to the pool for a swim. As we got used to living in Africa we realised that if you were going to do the turkey dinner thing it was best done outside on the veranda (if you had one) and that Pavlova and ice cream was a much better dessert choice than Christmas pudding and hot custard.

(As per wiki) – Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. It has a crisp crust and soft, light inside, usually topped with fruit and whipped cream.[

The dessert is believed to have been created in honour of the dancer either during or after one of her tours to Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. The nationality of its creator has been a source of argument between the two nations for many years.

‘The pav’ is a popular dish and an important part of the national cuisine of both Australia and New Zealand, and with its simple recipe, is frequently served during celebratory and holiday meals. It is a dessert most identified with the summertime, and popularly eaten during that period, including at Christmas time; however, it is also eaten all year round in many Australian and New Zealand homes.

After years of living south of the equator, we had to get used to living in the Northern Hemisphere again when we came to Canada. Our first Christmas was a beautiful white Christmas with lots of snow. We felt so happy and privileged to be living in Canada but also lots of heartache for being so far away from family and what had become our home. Life is a constant readjustment.

As a child in England the most memorable part of Christmas was going out to Midnight Mass. We would come home around 1.30 am and enjoy hot mince pies while the turkey was popped into the oven for a slow roast overnight. We lived in an old converted stone cottage which still had the Rayburn stove oven – does anyone remember those? Very similar to the Aga ones. Kept the whole house warm and with no central heating we needed that. Also wonderful for drying out the clothes on a wet day. You just had to be careful not to knock a pair of socks into the pan of soup on the stovetop. In fact this type of cooker has been so popular in England because it has so many uses –

Our first cruise ever as a family included the Christmas period so we had our Christmas celebration on board a small cruise ship (only 10.000 tonnes) which sailed from Durban all the way to the Seychelles Islands and back. Wow. Quite the trip for our first cruise. It really was an old crock but we didn’t know and had nothing to compare it to. During the journey the choice of drinks – especially beer – slowly dwindled until they only had one brand. It was hard to get supplies in such an area. The noise in our cabin was so loud – I think it was from one of the engines or the air conditioning machine. As our youngest was still in a crib it worked out ok. It was like white noise to him. He actually learnt to walk on that cruise. We were on board for 3 weeks. When we finally got off back in Durban he just sat down on the dock with a puzzled look on his face. Couldn’t understand why the ground wasn’t moving.

What a great Christmas that was. Father Christmas was on board and the kids played Christmas games while us parents lolled on the deck getting a tan. The crew were so gracious and kind to us and the kids and I often wondered how they must be missing their own families so far away that Christmas time. We visited uninhabited islands, saw giant tortoises and saluted the numerous shipwreck victims at Bassas da India. We all stood on the deck in silence with the Captain and he got the waiters to pour everyone a tot of Ouzo and then we all raised our glasses.

From three hours before high tide until three hours afterwards, Bassas da India disappears beneath the surface of the sea. It is this trait that made it a scourge for the sailors of the past, and which has turned it into the ship graveyard that it is today. Although the exact number can’t be known due to the plunging depths around the atoll, it’s estimated that over 100 vessels met their fate on the razor-sharp shoals of Bassas da India. In fact, the atoll earned its name in the early 16th century, when a Portuguese ship called the Judia ran aground upon its hidden reefs. Orginally named Baixo da Judia (which translates as shoal of Judia) the atoll later became known as Bassas da India thanks to the transcription errors of early cartographers.

Of all the wrecks that populate Bassas da India, perhaps the most famous is the Santiago; tales of this ship and its misplaced treasure certainly captured my attention. After the discovery of the trade route between Portugal and India via the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century, armadas of Portuguese merchant ships frequently made the journey between Lisbon and Goa via Mozambique. One such ship was the carrack Santiago, which departed from Lisbon on April 1, 1585. Captained by Fernão de Mendonça, the Santiago carried a valuable cargo, including 400,000 silver pieces of eight.

Wow – maybe for that many pieces of silver I wouldn’t mind braving the sharks of Bassas da India. Then again … maybe not!

By Lesley Keyter

Lesley Keyter is the face of travel in the fast growing city of Calgary. Every week since 1997 she has has featured live on the Morning News Global TV.


  1. Lesley,
    Not really answering your question about best Christmas memory as there are a number of good memories around my Australian Christmas, some similar to your South African memories: early church, beach, late lunch (roast chickens) with grandparents and aunts.
    Trying to work out how big your first cruise ship was as you didn’t define whether it was DWT, GT, or NT. I presume that it was GT as 10,000 DWT would be a reasonably big cargo ship. The Large cruise ships, 3,000 passengers, are about 100,000 GT. The Titanic was 46,000 GT.
    The Aranui 5 which we were on 2 years ago is shown as 11,000 GT and about 3,000 DWT. It is a passenger-freighter with about 160 passengers and was very comfortable. Cruise ships have changed dramatically over the years and it sounds like you enjoyed your first trip and have enjoyed recent cruises.
    We’re all really spoiled these days, except for COVID uncertainty.


    1. Gosh, Hugh – technical questions 🙂 Not to worry. Google is a great help.
      479 foot in length – just under 10.000 gross registered tonnage. Max 450 passengers. Sadly no longer. But a fun ship that’s for sure.


      1. Thanks for your response.
        Memories! My parents took their first real vacation in 1962+/- on MS Polynesie, a passenger-freighter running from Sydney to Noumea and my grandmother looked after us 5 children left behind. Google shows trip as being 17 days, 36 passengers, 3,700 tons. Small ship travel must be in my genes.


  2. Great post. It brought back so many memories. My Dad arrived in South Africa during WW2 with the RAF to train crews to be sent to India and then Japan. He demobbed at war’s end and raised a family. I left South Africa in 1973 to see the world. I remember clearly to this day that as the Union Castle ship sailed out of Cape Town harbour, my sister ran the length of the long breakwater waving to me as I stood at the stern. I waved back until she disappeared from view. I came to Canada in 1976 to see the Olympics in Montreal. I have never looked back.


    1. Oh wow Ian. What memories, what a story I bet you could write! That memory of your sister running the length of the breakwater. I can just see that in my mind’s eye. Those old Union Castle ships were something, weren’t they. In those days when not many people travelled long distances by air it was the way to commute to Europe. My Dad was sent to South Africa during WW2 – he was in the Fleet Air Arm with the Royal Navy. He loved South Africa so much he decided to emigrate when he finished his last contract with the Royal Navy.


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