Why you should care
The Obamas got their chandelier from these creative guys.
Since 2007 the people of Barrydale, South Africa, have come together on December 16 (Reconciliation Day) for the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. Standard festive issue, you might think. Except this tree is an otherworldly abstraction made from junk by artists whose chandeliers once hung in the Obama White House. What’s more, the festivities include a world-class puppet parade that shatters — for a couple of days, at least — the town’s invisible but lingering apartheid-era barriers.
The creators of the tree are the four friends who make up the Magpie Art Collective, which was established 20 years ago and has been based in Barrydale since 2003. To celebrate their first Christmas in the tiny farming village, the guys used recycled trash to build a Christmas tree in the garden of the home they share. “Loads of compliments from the neighbors” led them to create their first public tree a few yules later, says Shane Petzer, the public face of the collective. And that has grown into a two-day festival of art, music, dance and food that teaches local kids and adults new skills and injects some much-needed capital into the rural town.
The first couple of trees were the conventional conical shape, but recent incarnations have been more in keeping with the collective’s other work. Featuring the same sort of whimsical recycled fancies (flying bird silhouettes, trailing ribbons and colorful interactive lighting) that encouraged the Obamas to spend $4,800 (of their own cash, before you ask) on a chandelier for Sasha and Malia’s bedroom, the tree stays up for at least eight weeks in the meadow below Magpie’s home, and becomes a real focal point, especially at night.
The puppet parade started seven years ago, when frequent visitors to Barrydale, Basil Jones and Adrien Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company fame (you may have seen their work in the Broadway production War Horse), offered to muck in. The parade, like the tree, has become bigger and better every year — the 2016 incarnation involved more than 200 local schoolchildren and four enormous puppets — but the formula remains the same. At 6 p.m. two groups set out — one from the old, predominantly white town center and the other from the Cape Coloured area of Smitsville — before converging on the netball courts of a local primary school. There, the puppets have a standoff that “represents the underlying racial tension in our community and our country,” says Petzer, before “kissing and making up.”
The tree and the parade are the two biggest attractions of what is now a two-day festival. BAM, the Barrydale Art Meander, gives visitors the chance to pop into the homes and studios of 12 local artists ranging from an incredible hand-weaving cooperative to an internationally acclaimed ceramist. The Barrydale Festive Braai in Smitsville, which features braai (barbecue) facilities, local DJs and waterslides for the kids — you bring your own meat, gazebo and chairs — is a plain old jol (Afrikaans for shindig). This year the local hospice will be putting on a duck derby, where people sponsor plastic bath ducks in a race down the river in the name of charity.
The idea was to use “a cultural event like Christmas as a tool to build social and environmental awareness, but we never dreamed it would get this big,” says Petzer. “I used to have to run around like a lunatic promoting the tree, but now my job is much easier,” because there’s a whole weekend of events to attract beach-mad South Africans to a hot inland town in the height of summer.