MVEZO, South Africa — A couple of decades ago, Nelson Mandela grew withdrawn while feasting with his family on Christmas Day in the part of rural South Africa where the antiapartheid leader lived as a child. Alarmed by the patriarch’s silence, some relatives looked at him and asked if anything was wrong.
“ ‘I’m just wondering what the rest of the community is doing while we’re having a huge meal,’ ’’ Mandela said at the time, according to his grandson, Mandla.
Family members immediately canvassed the neighborhood for children to join their party, rounding up a merry band of 60, and so began an annual tradition that ballooned in popularity.
A scaled-down version was held Tuesday in Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace, drawing hundreds of local children to a celebration whose 94-year-old founder could not attend because he is in hospital care.
President Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, joined Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, and other family members to wish a Merry Christmas to Mandela at his hospital bedside in Pretoria, the South African capital.
Officials have previously said Mandela was improving, but note doctors are taking extraordinary care because he is very old.