MVEZO, South Africa — A couple of decades ago, Nelson Mandela grew withdrawn while feasting with his family on Christmas Day in the part of rural South Africa where the anti-apartheid leader lived as a child.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.

Loading Slideshow...
  • 1918

    Born July 18, 1918, son of a counselor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people near Qunu in what is now the Eastern Cape. He is widely known in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba. <br><em>Caption: Portrait of South African political leader Nelson Mandela between 1945 and 1960, wearing the traditional outfit of the Thembu tribe. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1940s

    Mandela devoted his life to the fight against white domination, leaving Fort Hare university in the early 1940s before completing his studies. He founded the ANC Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. <br><em>Caption: Nelson Mandela (3rd from right), leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Patrick Molaoa and Robert Resha charged with treason by the South-African Union walked to the room where their trial was being held, Drill Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa.(API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1961-1963

    Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." <br><em>Caption: The South African political leader Nelson Mandela giving a speech before the African Congress. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1964

    He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. <br><em>Caption: Eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria 16 June, 1964, with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. The eight men were accused of conspiracy, sabotage and treason. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1960s - 1970s

    Mandela spent nearly two decades as a prisoner on Robben Island, a barren lump of rock that sits in shark-infested waters off the coast of Cape Town and served as the apartheid government's main jail for political opponents. During his incarceration, Mandela largely faded from the public imagination in South Africa, although his then-wife Winnie kept the ANC torch alight throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. <br><em>Caption: Winnie Mandela, wife of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela, defied her banning order by addressing a huge funeral crowd on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 1985, in Mamelodi Township at Pretoria. (AP Photo/Greg English) </em>

  • 1980s

    In the 1980s, he became the focus of the international anti-apartheid movement, and the "Free Nelson Mandela" slogan started to seep back into South Africa despite heavy censorship and curbs on political movements. <em><br> The demonstration for liberty of Nelson Mandela in Paris, France on June 1, 1986. (Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)</em>

  • 1990

    F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, finally lifted the ban on the ANC and other liberation movements on February 2, 1990, and Mandela walked free from jail nine days later, an event beamed live around the world. <em><br>Leader of National Party F.W. de Klerk at press briefing during private visit to Windhoek, Namibia. (Selwyn Tait/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1994

    A year later he was elected president of the ANC and in May 1994 was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. He used his prestige and status to push for reconciliation between whites and blacks, setting up a Commission led by Archbiship Desmond Tutu to probe crimes committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle. <em><br>Caption: President Nelson Mandela of South Africa celebrates his historic election win at the ANC victory party on May 2, 1994, at Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1998

    South Africa shared the pain of Mandela's humiliating divorce in 1996 from Winnie Mandela, his second wife, and watched his courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on in July 1998. <em><br>Caption: Winnie Mandela (c), then-wife of African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, and then-head of the ANC social welfare department, announces 15 April, 1992, in Johannesburg to journalists that she resigned from her position in the wake of the collapse of her marriage with the ANC leader and renewed allegation of her involvement in townships killings. At right, her lawyer, Ismael Ayob. (REVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • 1999

    In 1999, he handed over to younger leaders he saw as better equipped to manage a fast-growing, rapidly modernising economy - a rare example of an African leader voluntarily departing from power. <em><br>Caption: South African Presiden Nelson Mandela (C) flanked by deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki (R) & F.W. de Klerk. (William F. Campbell//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)</em>

  • 2007

    In 2007 Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday by launching an international group of elder statesmen, including fellow Nobel peace laureates Tutu and Jimmy Carter, to tackle world problems including climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty. <em><br>Caption: Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, is helped to his feet by his wife Graca, unseen left, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, after the launch of 'The Elders,' in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, July 18, 2007. (Greg Marinovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images) </em>

  • Mandela made his last appearance at a mass event in July 2010 at the final of the soccer World Cup. He received a thunderous ovation from the 90,000 at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto. He was hospitalized for nearly a week in January 2011 in Johannesburg with respiratory problems. The icon celebrated his 94th birthday in July 2012. <em>Caption: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, 94, and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu, South Africa, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)</em>