I love how neat and tidy American holidays are. But, before I could begin to appreciate that, I had to get the terminology right. Where I come from, a holiday is when you take time off to go to the beach or to visit a new country or to go hiking and catch up on your reading: a vacation, in other words. A “public holiday” is one of those days that is taken out of the usual work schedule. I remember once asking an American acquaintance, who had been away in California for a couple of weeks, how her holiday had been. She proceeded to tell me in great detail about one particular day, a public holiday that had fallen during that time. Fortunately, I think I was the only one who was momentarily confused by this.
In South Africa, it seemed to me, public holidays were rather haphazard and were taken where they fell, even if they chopped up the work week in a random fashion. As the political landscape has changed, the ethos of the public holidays has changed too. A holiday that used to make those of us with a conscience cringe was held on December 16th to commemorate the victory of the vastly outnumbered Boers over the Zulus in a battle in 1838. For many years it was called the Day of the Covenant but nowadays it has the more neutral name of Family Day. Freedom Day, celebrated on April 27th, is a relatively new public holiday to mark the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. (Curiously, there is no public holiday to mark the release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years’ incarceration on February 11th 1990.) A public holiday that seems no longer to be formally celebrated in the Cape, sadly, is Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) on January 2nd. This is the day of a minstrel carnival dating back to the mid-19th century when working class people of mixed race parade in astonishingly bright costumes and perform boisterous music to the accompaniment of a motley collection of musical instruments. This is affectionately called “The Coon Carnival” in Cape Town (by all the residents, regardless of race) but has been given the official name of “Cape Town Minstrel Carnival” in deference to the sensibilities of foreigners who are concerned about the perceived pejorative nature of the traditional term. A holiday that is still widely observed in South Africa is what is now called The Day of Goodwill, after Christmas Day. I grew up knowing it as Boxing Day, the tradition being that it was the day when boxes of alms and food were delivered to the needy. It’s a holiday I miss in the States; it makes Christmas seem rather truncated.
In any event, these holidays in South Africa are dotted about the calendar in a sort of splash pattern. In the United States, on the other hand, unless it is a particularly big day like the Fourth of July (naturally!) or Christmas day, the holidays are tacked onto the nearest weekend, so it’s all bundled neatly together. Not only that, the lovely, long, slow, lazy days of summer are bookended by Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September. How neat is that?! So, one seems to skip through the year, like a pebble bouncing over water, buoyed up by these holidays: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day in mid-January, President’s Day in mid-February, Easter/Passover in April, Memorial Day in May, Independence Day in July, Labor Day in September, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving in November, and so to the Christmas holidays.
Many of these American holidays were brand new to me. I’d heard of Thanksgiving, of course, but it doesn’t carry the monumental significance that it does for someone who has celebrated it all their life with the overlay of memory and tradition that carries. To this day, I will generally elect to work on Thanksgiving, since it doesn’t have that meaning attached to it, so that my colleagues can enjoy a day that means so much more to them. So, too, with the Fourth of July. I absolutely understand the importance of it in terms of American history and I enjoy fireworks along with the best of them, but it doesn’t quite carry that inherent significance that it does to someone who has grown up with it.
But I was glad to be one of the Americans at play this Memorial Day weekend. My brother-in-law has a vacation apartment in Ocean City, Maryland, and we were invited to spend the time there. For one thing, I was fascinated to discover that there truly is such a thing as a boardwalk. I have to say I was not a great fan of the Drifters 1964 hit about the couple arranging to meet under a boardwalk in New York, but the refrain is certainly catchy and I felt that a visit to Ocean City wouldn’t be complete without a visit to its boardwalk. So now I know that it is, literally, just that.
It was so gorgeous to be by the open ocean again too. It reminded me of our annual family holidays at Bonza Bay outside East London in the Eastern Cape, where there were long, white beaches with rolling dunes, and waves with just the right punch to be exciting without being frightening to a small girl. It was there, in a lagoon that was only open to the sea in the highest tides, that I learned to swim with a very vigorous doggy-paddle, and where my cousin and I would play and roll on the dunes until we developed sausages of sand under our bathing suits.
The beaches at Ocean City are expansive, and it was a delight to dig my toes into the sand again and stand in the shallows to feel the slow erosion under my feet as the waves ebbed and flowed. The water was shockingly cold and I only managed a couple of very abbreviated dashes in and out of the sea. I thought about the Atlantic Ocean I had known in Cape Town all the way at the other end of the world. The cold Benguela current flows along that coast and the deceptively inviting beaches – Camps Bay, Clifton, Llandudno, Hout Bay, Noordhoek (where the film, Ryan’s Daughter, was shot) – have water that is so bone achingly cold that one can barely even paddle. No matter where it is, though, there is something so invigorating about the combination of the never-ending rhythm of the waves; the horizon of the sea and sky; the fresh, briny smell; and the expansiveness of the beaches.