For many in the Northern Hemisphere, the Christmas season means snow, pine trees, and brand-new gaming consoles. But in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1991 it meant the heat of summer and a knockoff Famicom – but equally precious memories.
Here in America, there’s undeniably a vision of an “ideal” Christmas, popularized by films like A Christmas Story and classic Christmas carols. You probably know what I mean – curled up with your family in front of a fire, opening presents under the tree as snow drifts to the ground lazily outside your window. But this idealized American Christmas is rarer than it sounds – but does that make the fond memories of spending time with your family any less precious? As John Szczepaniak writes in Issue 231 of The Escapist, Christmas in Johannesburg, South Africa, looked very different from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
While I was aware of how America and England celebrated Christmas thanks to films, my holidays in South Africa were very different. There was never any snow except on Christmas cards, and no Santa coming down the chimney, as very few houses had a fireplace. There were also no carol singers walking around at night, due to the extreme violence for which South Africa was becoming notorious. Because of the danger of muggings and attacks at gunpoint, my family was vigilant when going out, and at home we were protected by barbed wire fences, Rottweillers and my father’s collection of handguns. We didn’t walk anywhere due to the distances between places and the violence that one could encounter.
The international trade situation also affected my life. All videogames that I saw for sale at that time were either unofficial imports of legitimate items from America and Japan (there was some official PAL support, but it was negligible), or counterfeits from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These weren’t the usual cheaply-made bootleg games with faulty menus and broken graphics, like those I bought off Russian smugglers in Eastern Europe at the turn of the millennium. The pirate cartridges I received in South Africa were top quality, complete with little stickers around the edges explaining that my 30-day warranty would be void if I tampered with it.
For that Christmas in 1991, all he and his brother wanted – more than anything – was a knockoff clone of the Famicom (aka the NES). To read about a young boy’s holiday dreams coming true in a Johannesburg Yuletide, read “Christmas in South Africa” in Issue 231 of The Escapist.