AS in most places, Christmas in South Africa is a jumble of the sacred and profane, of psalms and sales, of gravity and glitz. But here in the Southern Hemisphere, the contrasts appear even more pronounced. Consider the seeming obsession with snow: this, in a country where anyone who can afford it evacuates the city's sweltering summer heat for the seashore. Flights to the coasts are fully booked until mid-January, and Johannesburg offices are virtually deserted except for aggrieved-sounding secretaries.
Yet most shops are decked out as though this were Vail, Colo. Sandton City, a sprawling shopping mall in the snazzy northern suburbs, is a prime example. Its climate-controlled halls are packed with people seeking an escape from the heat: matrons with well-cultivated tans; gaggles of teen-aged girls in shorts and T-shirts; sun-burned couples strolling arm-in-arm.
The window of Laura Lovely, a women's clothing store, presents an unlikely scene. Mannequins dressed in beach wear cavort bare-footed through drifts of fake snow. They have snowflakes in their hair. They have snowflakes on their midriffs. An ice-laden Christmas tree is growing on the beach.
At Elephant Walk, a shop specializing in tropical attire, male mannequins wear cool safari suits and pith helmets against the hot African sun. They too, are standing unshod in a dusting of snow made from little foam pellets. Nearby is a snow-flecked fir tree.
And so on. Just about every store displays weather, flora, or fauna usually found in more northerly climes. There is one particularly South African feature to the mall, however. Guards posted at every entrance check for bombs - a chilling reminder, amid the glitter, of the antigovernment violence that has rocked this country.
To be sure, the fixation on a northern-style Christmas is not limited to the exclusively white suburbs. The story is the same in downtown Johannesburg, where most blacks shop. Only downtown, it is a lot hotter.
There, the heat rises in shimmering, undulating waves from the roofs of cars stuck in traffic. By midday, the tiny parks that dot the area are packed with people trying to cool off. Ice cream vendors do a brisk business, the little bells they ring create a constant cacophany.
Shoppers move slowly along the streets. Many are loaded down with parcels and bags. Unlike recent years, there is no black boycott of white-owned businesses this Christmas. With key black leaders jailed under the government's 18-month-old state of emergency, blacks say it was impossible to organize a widespread boycott.
Indeed, the Association of Chambers and Commerce estimates people will spend a record $4.5 billion this Christmas, 19 percent more than last year. One reason, is an improved economy; another, the absence of a boycott.
``Last year, you couldn't buy anything,'' explains Evans Dube, a restaurant manager who lives in Soweto, a Johannesburg township. ``Our leaders watched us very carefully. I suppose it's nicer to be able to buy gifts, but we have to respect our leadership - even on Christmas.''
Of course, Christmas here is not all consumerism. For Afrikaners, it is a time to commemorate the victory of their Dutch ancestors over Zulu warriors almost 150 years ago. The annual celebration of the Day of the Vow, as it is called, recalls the promise they made to keep the day forever as one of thanksgiving if they triumphed.
The massive Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria, the capital, fills with families dressed in Sunday finery. Some women and girls wear the long frocks and white kappies (bonnets), of pioneering days. A handful of men sport the brown khaki uniform of the ultra-nationalistic Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB, with its triple-seven insignia which resembles a bent swastika. Just about everyone carries a hymnal and a Bible.
It is a powerful ceremony, made more so by the accompaniment of the Army choir and a majestic organ. Toward noon, people start glancing furtively upward at a small window in the Monument's dome. The building is constructed so that on this day at noon, a ray of light is supposed to hit exactly an inscription on the symbolic tomb of Piet Retief, a Boer leader murdered by the Zulus. Despite all the neck craning, however, only those standing up in the dome or down near the cenotaph see it.
After the clock chimes the hour, everyone rises to sing the national anthem. There is a strength about them as their words rise above the organ's thunder, a clear pride in what they have created after 40 years in power, and a dogged resolve to carry on:
``At thy call we shall not falter
Firm and steadfast we shall stand
At thy will to live or perish
Oh South Africa, dear land.''
This is a time of remembrance for others, too. About 200 people gather in the auditorium of a Johannesburg church to recall those who have been detained under the state of emergency. Most participants are young whites: students in scruffy jeans and sandals; ``yuppies'' in suits and ties; mothers with small, clingy children. The meeting is sponsored by Friends of the United Democratic Front. The UDF is a coalition of groups fighting government segregationist policies, known as apartheid.
The evening has the flavor of a 1960s United States protest rally. Participants recite their own poetry, read passages from the Bible, sing songs and play guitars. A member of the Detainees' Parents Support Committee makes a speech saying about 1,500 people are still in detention - a figure the government disputes - then small candles are distributed and the lights dimmed.
He asks everyone to light the candles and come forward to read aloud the names of three detainees. Somewhere, a lilting voice begins a chorus of ``What have we done?'' - a 1950s anti-apartheid song. People pick up the slow, haunting melody - reminiscent of old Negro spirituals - as they wait in the long line, their faces illuminated by candlelight. They finish by singing the black national anthem, ``Lord Bless Africa,'' arms outstretched and fists clenched in the black-power salute.
Afterward, a young black man in detention for 14 months, stands outside the church. He has a neatly trimmed goatee and a small, arrow-shaped scar on his cheek. ``It's hard to organize blacks nowadays with no leadership,'' he says softly, looking up at the sky. ``But I really appreciate every person who came tonight, white or black. For me, that makes it a better Christmas.''