MVEZO, South Africa (AP) — A couple of decades ago, Nelson Mandela grew withdrawn while feasting with his family on Christmas Day in the part of rural South Africa where the anti-apartheid leader lived as a child.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.
"We found him in good spirits," Zuma said in a statement. "He shouted my clan name, Nxamalala, as I walked into the ward! He was happy to have visitors on this special day and is looking much better. The doctors are happy with the progress that he is making."
Mandela was admitted Dec. 8 to a hospital. He was diagnosed with a lung infection and also had a procedure to remove gallstones. Officials have previously said Mandela was improving, but note doctors are taking extraordinary care because he is very old.
In Mvezo, it was a rainy day, but the 800 children attending the Mandela party were happy to sweep up sunglasses, dolls, toy cars, blankets and other gifts. They cavorted and whooped under a big tent. Loud music livened the moment. One little girl, however, didn't get her wish.
"I wish to see Tata Mandela back home to have Christmas with us," said 4-year-old Babalwa Booi. "Tata" means father in South Africa's Xhosa language.
"This is a special day to us mainly because of the lessons drawn from my grandfather," said Mandla Mandela, a tribal chief in the Mvezo area of Eastern Cape province.
The genesis of the homegrown Christmas party is one more entry in the voluminous lore about Mandela's generosity and openness of spirit, which he even extended at times to the jailers who imprisoned him for 27 years under apartheid.
The system of white minority rule was eventually dismantled, opening the way to South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. Mandela, a Nobel laureate, served one five-year term as president before retiring and in recent years he has lived near Mvezo in Qunu, a village where he recalled happy moments as a child.
Mandela himself was uneasy with the idea of being an icon, and as president, he failed to craft a lasting formula for overcoming South Africa's biggest, post-apartheid problems, poverty and economic inequality. While he was active, he did not escape criticism as an individual and a politician, but he is globally respected as a symbol of decency and principle.
Mandla Mandela, the grandson, remembered how the Christmas party that followed the first impromptu one in the 1990s was swamped by more than 1,000 children, three times as many as were expected. By 2001, nearly 10,000 were showing up. At some point, the chief said, American television personality Oprah Winfrey got involved and there was sponsorship.
"The numbers grew phenomenally," he said, with tens of thousands of children in attendance.
The Christmas parties were originally held in Qunu. The 2005 edition was cancelled when Mandla Mandela's father died. The tradition was revived in 2007 in Mvezo.
Nelson Mandela "has always said every society will be judged by the manner it treats its children," his grandson said.
"We were, on our part, wishing to spend this time with him, Christmas being a family day," his grandson said. "But we do not want to exert pressure on the doctors because they know what he needs to get well."
Torchia reported from Johannesburg.