CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES IN NORTHERN SRI LANKA
SOME NOSTALGIC MEMORIES FROM THE#PAST
My memories go back to the days when I was a kid in the village (late forties and early fifties) and I thought I would share with your readers how the festive season was spent there during those glorious days. It would have been the same in the all other villages too.
Those who were employed in the cities (Colombo and elsewhere) would start descending into the village from December 21st as they all get paid on the 20th.. As a general rule, all Public Offices as well as Mercantile Establishments were closed from Dec. 24th till January 2nd next year. This system, however was abolished sometime in the early fifties and only two days, Christmas Day and the New Year’s were approved as holidays. I believe only the Christmas Day is a National Holiday now
There were two main Parishes in my village and Christmas festivities came to our Church once in three years. Days before Christmas, young maidens of the Parish who make up the Church choir will start their rehearsals while youngsters, seniors and juniors seize this opportunity to mix around with and poke fun at them. Two days before Christmas, a few youths gather and start putting up a crib at the Church and by Christmas Eve, a beautiful one would be ready with the Infant Jesus laid on bare straw. As a sideshow the kids would assemble to rehearse for a game called ‘Koladdam’, a friendly batter played with sticks. More of it later.
At homes, new clothes were bought for the young and old, especially for the very young. Ladies go for saris and take pride in exhibiting them at the midnight Church service. However, not all could afford to buy new ones .Cakes were baked or bought and some snacks were also made but these were generally reserved for the New Year. Come Christmas Eve, they all attend the midnight mass and the weather would generally be kind. There was no electricity but the Church was lit up with plenty of candles and one or two petromax lamps. The choir sings ‘Gloria’ with all the fervor they can command and Jesus Christ was considered as born. After the mass, the gathering disperses to their homes but not the youths, they all assemble and the juniors collect their ‘Koladdam’ sticks. These are well polished sticks normally around 12 to 18 inches in round shape long thick at the bottom and thinner at the top. This game is a friendly one played by two y or in groups of four. Led by the seniors, one of whom will be the ‘Santa Claus, appropriately dressed, they move from one home to other and play this game while carols are sung by a few. Generally they are rewarded with some money. All households are bound to give whatever they can. Some parishioners live distantly but they cannot be excluded. Generally coffees and snacks are served to keep the youths awake and by the time this round of visits is completed, it is already dawn. No one ever bothered to check up what happened to the collections but presumably they filled the Church coffers.
Christmas day dawns and there is a Holy Mass said to accommodate those who could not attend the midnight service. It is really a glorious day and ladies would prepare their best dishes for lunch and dinner. Of course, in many homes alcohol forms a part of the gaiety although this was taboo in my own home. My mother would always cook a rooster from our brood of hens and cocks and an excellent lunch is served to celebrate Christmas. Social visits, unlike in the cities were limited as they were reserved for the New Y ear.
The week following Christmas Day was spent merrily, youths taking part in games such as soccer and cricket. The weather always kept good. Ladies start preparing snacks such as Sippi, Payatham Paniyaram, Ariatharam, Murukku , etc. for the New Year. In my own home, we all looked forward to the 27th Dec. when we always travelled by bullock card in the very early days and later by a vehicle to visit a close relative’s house in another village. All the relatives would join this family on this date to commemorate the elderly couple’s wedding anniversary. While the elders meet and chat, the young move around the spacious garden and relax. A delicious lunch would always be served and by evening after coffee all depart. This day always remained a memorable day in the Christmas season calendar.
Come New Year’s eve, there was always a Benediction at the Church when ‘ Te Deum ‘ would be sung to thank God Almighty for the good year that was about to end .All homes were ready to welcome the New Year and as night falls lanterns ( called ‘Vellichchakoodu’) were put up in each home. These were made with lean sticks and covered with multi-coloured tissue papers, hexagons or octagons. A candle was laid in the middle of it on a stick and this beautiful piece of artistic work hoisted on a branch of a tree. . There was a dignified competition as to whose one was bigger and brighter. Unlike on Christmas eve, there would be no midnight service a the Church but most of the parishioners would assemble sharp at midnight to pray to the Holy Infant Jesus and the patron Saint of the parish ( St. Antony) to usher in a bright and prosperous New year.
Early next morning as New Year dawns, everyone proceeds to the Church to attend the Holy mass but even before that there would be stream of visitors at our home to greet our grandparents and my own parents who were ‘Godparents’ to many. The scene is the same in other homes too. During the mass, the ’Veni Creator’ is sung beautifully and it is the turn of the parish Priest to extend his own wishes.
On New Year’s Day every household visits each other and this is a must. When they visit, snacks mentioned earlier are served. In certain homes, cream crackers with cheese and cakes are also served By the time three or four homes are visited, the stomach gets filled up. Ladies wait til the evening to visit because they have to wait at home to cook another delicious lunch with mutton or fowl curry. If some visits are not made on New years Day, they are done the following day. If a home is not visited by someone, it is taken as an affront. The Parish consisted of 50 odd families, all related to each other by blood or marriage. Some were well to do and some downright poor but there was no discrimination and it was a happy family. These were glorious days indeed when family rivalry, jealousy and competition were generally absent. In general thee was ‘goodwill’ in true spirit of Christmas
After the New Year, the village goes quiet. Those who had come for the holidays would depart one by one and kids prepare to go to school. The Christmas festivities in the Church end with the feast of Ephiphany, which was celebrated those days on the 6th of January.
As for me I would prepare to go back to St. Patrick’s Boarding House. I have had enough of good food and now must move over to the ‘Boarding House food.
I do not know how Christmas festivities are spent now in this village but I wish I could be there next time, God willing.
A Merry Christmas and a Bright and Prosperous to all of you.