Travelogues

Christmas in Colombo: Sri Lanka December 2015 – February 2016 Trip

I landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka on the 3rd of December but I have just finished off Week 3 of my foray into local TV and radio journalism over here and it has been interesting.

I haven’t really travelled anywhere in Week 3 unlike Week 2 that saw me take this two day jaunt down the Southern coast and I was hoping that they would send me out to do more of the same but it didn’t happen in Week 3.

Come the end of Week 3 it was Christmas which made me realise that I switch back and forth in to whichever mode – Sri Lankan or Australian – quite easily but that that doesn’t mean that a) that there aren’t any differences between how people do things in either country or b) that said differences aren’t hugely obvious and confusing to others. This is what happens when you enter the strange limbo of both being a tourist and not being a tourist in your own country – this is my life now: permanent limbo in strange mix of foreigner and citizen no matter which country I am in. I think that makes me a permanent expatriate – I am not sure. Someone, comment and let me know.

And Christmas here differs too, from family to family. So non-Sri Lankans get ready to be informed; Sri Lankans, you can relax till the end and tell me if I missed something. But here you go – this is how we do it in Colombo:

We have no snow but we fully take on the whole Santa plus reindeer plus carols about snow thing.

Australia does this too BUT I have seen depictions of Santas on beaches in board shorts with beer so I would like to think that Australia has in a lot of ways made the whole Santa myth their own thing. Sri Lanka is a tropical country – we don’t see snow. The coldest it will ever get is maybe somewhere between 12 to 16 degrees Celsius up in the hills in Nuwara Eliya. But no, we were a colony not once but three times in modern history so where the British and the Dutch and the Portugese go we have the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic depictions of snow and Jesus who was born in the relatively snow free Middle East about 2000 odd years ago.

People LOVE nativity plays.

Personally,  I am all nativity played out. I was a shepherd twice, Mary once (after which you have reached the top – Mary is star billing, the first lead role, any other role is a demotion) and an angel once. The only version I enjoyed was the satirical version I did where I played a grumpy shepherd which to be honest was not really a role that required much acting on my part – I am a natural grump when called upon (ie provoked) to be so – it is a talent much like crying on demand.

But last week, I kid you not, on the Monday I left the building at five pm and attempted to get myself home via a tuk-tuk (or a trishaw or a tricycle rickshaw depending on your vocabulary level). Did I get one? No. Why? Because there was massive traffic caused by not just rush hour but the rush of people to get into the building’s car park in order to watch a little celebration including a nativity play and various high ranking church officials that was put on by the company. I had no choice but to move along with the crowd and then stand and watch a nativity play complete with live sheep and goats, magic special effects with angels, messages from bishops and carols sung in Sinhala and very glittery shiny three wise men/kings.

[aesop_video width=”content” align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”uQfxdTu9nic” caption=”Footage of the Christmas Zone that I got stuck in on Monday. (Source: Newsfirst’s Youtube Channel) ” loop=”on” autoplay=”on” controls=”on” viewstart=”on” viewend=”on”]

I applaud the effort that went into it but it was weird beyond belief to see so many people keen to watch it but maybe they don’t get to watch nativity plays often and I have some sort of privilege that means that I get to see nativity plays a lot. I don’t know. The kids enjoyed it and that was the main thing.

But I didn’t get home till 7 pm. Because people love nativity plays here so much so that it wreaks havoc with the traffic (I did say Sri Lanka equals surreal, did I not?).

Other reasons to celebrate still trump Christmas.

This year, Christmas Eve was not only Christmas Eve but also the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday and a full moon day. For those who are scratching their heads, let me explain this to you:

  1. Unlike other countries that say they are multicultural whatever other issues the country has, Sri Lanka actually recognises significant holidays and lets those of the respective faith have a day off.
  2. The Islamic calendar has less days and is set to different months so while they follow the usual calendar for all non religious purposes, the Islamic one tells them when said religious celebrations are and since it has less days, these celebrations are often not on the same day every year. So this year Prophet Mohammed’s birthday was on the December full moon which was also the 24th. It is a lunar calendar and we are currently in the 1437 AH (Anno Higerae) or H (Hijra) year which runs from 14 October 2015 to 2 October 2016 approximately which means that yes, Muslims across the world celebrated their New Year in October.
  3. Every full moon is a holiday in Sri Lanka so you are guaranteed at least twelve public holidays per year because the biggest religion in terms of followers in the country is Buddhism and Buddhism follows the lunar calendar for religious observances and so everyone goes to the temple on the full moon or poya day and this then means that shops and such have to close and no one can buy alcohol and meat. And that was yet again the 24th.
  4. Which meant that while a few shops advertised that they were going to be open on Christmas Day and on Christmas Eve till midnight, they also advertised that there would be no alcohol or meat of any kind available for sale. Yes, you Christians are celebrating but so are we – everyone gets a holiday. So if you were planning dinners and lunches you had to buy everything in advance which was why it took me quite a while to buy one bottle of vodka last Tuesday just so we had the ability to make people cocktails at Christmas dinner on Friday.
  5. It also meant that the 24th was effectively a public holiday and pfft, after all the advertising surrounding Christmas deals, of course non-Christians were not going to work on the 25th, which meant you had Thursday off, Friday off and then the weekend. I mean, if we non-Buddhists can’t work or study because the country stops every full moon then non-Christians get Easter and Christmas off as well – it only seems fair. That only means one thing – long weekend time which meant everyone who didn’t have actual Christianity related plans headed for the highway to head down the Southern coast and got stuck in traffic and the highway reportedly and totally anecdotedly took in tolls of 16 million rupees. All because the moon happened to be full on the 24th. I am kind of glad I did the south coast thing the week before now.

[aesop_content color=”#43c90a” background=”#ffffff” width=”content” columns=”1″ position=”left” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]Any holiday that doesn’t have a fixed date is called a moveable feast. And in Christianity, Easter is a moveable feast because there were rules set down about when to celebrate ages ago which is why it always changes each year – Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the 21st March solstice because it symbolizes resurrection. And in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year officially begins around the first week of April which also marks the start of the Sri Lankan astrological year and zodiac as we move from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries over a span of hours.

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So in Australia you buy food early because you won’t ever be able to find prawns/shrimp for the barbecue at a reasonable price otherwise and it’s this total exercise in market economics. In Sri Lanka, it’s because everyone defends their right to have a day off. It’s amazing how anyone gets anything done sometimes.

The food varies because it depends largely on who you are having lunch or dinner with.

In Australia, it’s your traditional sort of British inherited Christmas fare depending on your ancestry of course. The usual stereotypical idea is that it is seafood all the way on the grill for Christmas lunch and this does happen a great deal but people also have turkey and mince pies and other such things.

If you turn up at my house for dinner, you will get turkey. And Christmas pudding. But no mince pies. No brussel sprouts either. We like the sprouts but we don’t usually serve them. Our family Christmas dinner is a Lost and Found dinner where anyone at a loose end joins us whatever religion and we cater accordingly with options for vegetarians, for Hindus who don’t eat beef and Muslims who don’t eat pork and so on. It is often non-Asian food so that it is something new and different so I have made chilli con carne a few times and we always have a Greek dish called moussaka though no one has Greek heritage so it is a real mix of things.

But in one cousin’s family, since they live in the US and don’t eat Sri Lankan food daily, Christmas is the chance to turn up at home and make Sri Lankan food including lamprais which is a Sri Lankan Burgher (Eurasian) dish. In another cousin’s family, they do lunch which I gather involves Western food – I don’t know because we have never been to their Christmas lunch as we are usually too busy preparing for our Christmas dinner to which they then come.

So it changes. I just saw a picture on Facebook of an Australian friend’s egg dish which is something different yet traditional within her family. Family traditions are different.

There is a lot of effort involved in Christmas celebrations.

At least there is if it is my family and we are celebrating in Sri Lanka. There is at the very minimum, at least two weeks of planning involved. This year, my sister started on about a theme for Christmas dinner about two months in advance.

But there genuinely is a lot of effort and preparation that goes into the whole event and I think this often confuses a lot of other friends of mine whether they are Christian or not. One person who was Christian once asked why I didn’t want to go out with them and I said “We are wrapping cake.” and the response was well if my mother wanted to wrap cake why couldn’t I just let her wrap it by herself and it was kind of hard to explain that well, my mother doesn’t want to wrap cake, she wants all the things she can get to do with her family which include wrapping cake.

But yes, if we are in Sri Lanka and Christmas is involved then by all means invite me out but be prepared that I may have to go wrap Christmas cake or buy presents or alcohol or plan the menu or clean the house or get the tree and decorate it or prep food or something. And if you are coming to dinner then you will see why.

We do it because it is a) a family thing and b) I can’t do much to make my mother happy but I can do this and c) we have a lot of other people who will otherwise be by themselves on a day when they know others are celebrating and who will have to face the weirdness of not having anything to celebrate themselves while all that is going on and we would therefore like to curb the weirdness and loneliness a bit and give them dinner and company and get them through the evening, and it all requires a lot of preparation.

We don’t know what Boxing Day is. 

Does anyone honestly know what it is meant to celebrate? It’s when you give presents to your staff. As in the sort of staff you would find in Downton Abbey. In Australia it is the day of the Boxing Day Test Match, always and traditionally held at the MCG. In Sri Lanka we are only vaguely aware of these Boxing Day Tests when our team is involved in them otherwise it’s merely that holiday we get right after Christmas and then it’s all “Hey machan, it’s a long weekend, let’s go down south!” You know to relax before the big night happens on NYE.

Christmas is celebrated in three different languages.

We celebrate Christmas in English, Sinhala and Tamil with services held throughout the 25th in each language.

Why? Because the language you speak is the one you were taught growing up but it isn’t necessarily reflective of the belief system and religion you subscribe to – not everyone who speaks Sinhala is Buddhist nor is everyone who speaks Tamil Hindu – plenty adopted the Christian faith generations and centuries ago be it Catholic or Presbyterian or Anglican flavoured.

That’s not to say that Christianity is taking over the other religions, far from it. It just means lines are blurred and often people can be of mixed ethnic backgrounds, religions and languages. Most of those who speak Arabic are Muslims so that they can follow Islamic observances so that tie is there but I am sure that in the Middle East that there are, for those who speak Arabic and are Christian, services held in Arabic. It hasn’t occurred here yet possibly because most Muslim Sri Lankans already speak several of the other languages anyway – they are extremely smart people – and Arabic is only used within Islam and the family household.

Christmas lights are put up across the city of Colombo and most of those who go to see them are non-Christian.

How do I know this? Because when I was younger, we would pile into the back of the car and make our way to look at the pandols or light displays for Vesak which is a Buddhist holiday. I have also watched peraharas or parades or processions several times. With most of our holidays, all are welcome to observe and I find that a nice way for people to learn about other religions and traditions.

The lights are put up by businesses however. And hotels. No one actually competes to light up their houses or be the best decorated house in the neighbourhood or anything like that. So the string of Christmas lights that invariably get tangled up each year no matter how carefully you put them away? Yeah that’s kind of foreign to Sri Lankans – just like eggnog. What is eggnog? Why make an alcoholic drink with eggs – can’t we just have scotch and rum and vodka like we normally do?

Everyone and anyone puts up Christmas decorations in their workplace. 

But not in the house. Everyone else seems to have baubles and garlands and wreaths and things everywhere, in every shop or business or place of work whether they are celebrating or not. Sri Lankan = any excuse to party.

 

And that’s all I can think of. Let me know if I missed any Sri Lankan specific ways of celebrating Christmas in the comments.

Pic credit: Christmas? by Gerald Pereira via Flickr

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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