Image: illustration by Manelisi Dabata

My job entails thinking about language, so I’ve probably spent an inordinate amount of time preoccupied with the meaning of words in the world. It was ever thus. As a child, Peter Sarstedt’s interminable song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) lived rent-free in my head for exactly this reason. In those antediluvian pre-streaming days, this stalkerish French-bistro-cliché accordion waltz, in which a needy man gossips about his childhood friend Marie-Claire, was an unavoidable staple of Jacaranda FM’s morning playlist.

A man whingeing about his friend’s glow-up is not the subject of this column. But among Marie-Claire’s many nice-life tendencies — a fondness for aged cognac, summering in Antibes, and wintering in the Alps — her most egregious crime in the eyes of her “friend” (he seems a bit of a hater) is that she keeps a horse she’s received for Christmas from her friend, the Aga Khan. My 10-year-old self was forever pondering the logistics of gifting someone a racehorse: Where would you keep it? What would you do with it, other than rejoice or wonder if the receipt was included in the horsebox?

I blame that song for a pervasive anxiety about gift-giving that has followed me into adulthood. Well, that and John Lennon’s yuletide guilt trip Happy Xmas (War Is Over), which looks you in the eye and asks, “And what have you done?” Half a century on, Lennon’s peace anthem does seem a particularly apt soundtrack to roll the credits to as the fog clears on the working year. Perhaps the everywhere-at-once evidence of the staggering cruelty of human beings calls on us to think about how we live in the world. Sure, I might still be holding out a hope that Santa leaves a “Verde Pino” Lamborghini Espada in my stocking, but I keep hoping to have a more profoundly meaningful answer to the question with each passing year.

In South Africa, the summer conditions always militate against doing anything too specific. Everyone develops a virulent and temporary strain of site-specific anti-urbanism, sure, but once they’ve decamped to their far-flung lodgings, nobody except the most fatally optimistic pursues anything too single-mindedly. Perhaps being focused on one thing is too difficult a prospect during the inevitably blazing December days. In my friend circle, the festive period is usually observed with all the abstracted cheer of an imported holiday based on no observable local reality.

Normally, we’d all get together for some sort of collective grazing but, as a consequence of our point in life, all the breeding ones are overrun with toddlers, who must be carted off to doting grandparents. The unchilded, meanwhile, will be steering their ageing parents away from their misinformation portals, the better to ensure a peaceful, conspiracy-free yule. All of which leaves me with no specific plan for the advent days.

To do anything at all under these circumstances means flinging oneself into the fray. Trying to get anywhere at all when the entire population wants to be in the same place is a mistake

In the past, this would have stoked my fear of languishing like a Dickensian waif but, this year, I feel relieved to be left off a few social lists. I may even be done with “doing things” at Christmas. This is partly prompted by the fact that I’m writing this column at a café overlooking the harbour at the V&A Waterfront, where some industrious adherent to the Chrimbo cheer has placed a fibre-optic holly wreath in direct competition with the glorious sunset. In a couple of weeks, this mall and all the other climate-controlled retail palaces will be overrun with shoppers, all of them in search of that magic trick where money is converted into signs of care.

To do anything at all under these circumstances means flinging oneself into the fray. Trying to get anywhere at all when the entire population wants to be in the same place is a mistake. I know — believe me, I do — that it’s hard to resist the urge to buy things, and even harder to resist the compulsion to do things. The holidays turn us into neophiles: we want every new thing, preferably now. In pursuit of this, we throw ourselves into slow food, street food, vinegar tastings, dubious kintsugi workshops, beauty procedures involving fynbos, silent discos, open-air cinemas, perilous abseiling, farmers’ markets, and on and on.

We want to externalise our openness to new ideas, and our eagerness drives an experience economy that we should be grateful for having. But, what if — and hear me out — we gave ourselves the gift of thoughtfulness this year? Skip the madding crowd and spend an hour at the Stevenson or Goodman Gallery. Take an environmental-sceptic friend for a test-drive in an EV. Pop in at your local independent bookstore and grab something edifying, even if it is Rassie Erasmus’s authorised bio for your uncle who doesn’t understand transformation.

Take a day trip out to a bistro in a quiet town, rather than trying to get a table at that place you saw on that list (that you should’ve booked nine months ago). Or take a few moments to learn about what’s going on in the world, which also means learning how to tell good sources of information from bad ones, how to sort the useful from the babble.

We live in a world that overflows with more and more information and less and less meaning. Learning how to understand, tenaciously and critically, what’s going on around us is the best gift we can give to ourselves. It’s freedom, and in a world that places an ever-higher price on that idea, we owe it to ourselves to make ours count for something.

Dr Wamuwi Mbao is a literary critic and essayist

• From the December edition of Wanted, 2023.

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