It’s that time of the year

Christmas is a time to spread happiness and joy, a time to deck the halls with boughs of holly everywhere you go. The time when you hear ‘jingle bells’ or ‘all I want for Christmas’ no matter which radio station you tune into. You could even say that if not for the absence of snow, Sri Lanka has everything to bring on the cheer and the spirit of Christmas.

As the clock strikes midnight on the 30th of November, the sound of the church bells ringing echoes throughout the town. Magnificent bursts of light follow these tolling bells, brightening smiles on everyone’s faces, as they light the first firecracker to celebrate the dawn of the Christmas season. People from this part of the country don’t wait till December to plan for Christmas. They prepare much earlier than you may assume, in late September or early October. Curious to know what part of the country we are talking about? It’s Negombo! A beautiful city, otherwise known as “Little Rome,” surrounded by exquisite Catholic churches with ornamentally-worked façades and impressive belfries. The old town has a pre-20th century air. The Parishes in Negombo date back to the Portuguese Era, though the churches were built during the British occupation to the generosity of the hard-working fisher-folk and benefactors who helped construct these large edifices. Almost all the churches built during the Portuguese Period were demolished by the Dutch Protestants. 

To explore more about Christmas in Negombo, we spoke with Harin Amirthanathan, the Choral Director of the Colombo Philharmonic Choir. He has a profound connection to Christmas in Negombo as a member of the Goan community in Sri Lanka, whose descendants have traded across the Konkan and Malabar coasts since the 18th century. It is a unique aspect of Harin’s Sri Lankan identity because it is also about the memories and cultural practices of Sri Lankan families who trace their roots to Goa, India. Negombo has a special significance during this season, since it is like a distinct part of the island where people come together to celebrate the festival’s true meaning. You are about to read and embrace Harin’s youthful days and his memories as a resident of this remarkable “Little Rome”, as he talks about Christmas during those days. “Festivals and fiestas are big days and community life is best expressed in the enjoyment of them”, Harin says. 

In Negombo, Christmas-excitement starts in late September. It all begins with the Christmas cake. Harin’s family starts by purchasing all the ingredients for the cake, which must settle in with all the booze that goes into it. Therefore they work on it early. Since times have changed and everyone is busy, only a few families still make Christmas cake at home. 

“We had the M. P. Gomez & Co. (Merchants from Tuticorin) and Frankwin’s wine store in Negombo, the places where everyone went to buy their liquor. The Imperial Central Varieties Stores or commonly known as the David shop which was run by a Mangalorean Merchant was the place for Edam ball cheese, glazed cherries, lychee and all canned food. In 1949 the store changed hands with Mr. E. J. Perera from Moratuwa. He renamed it Negombo Medical stores with the addition of a pharmacy. A.M Abdul Rahuman & Sons and the Soosaipillai & Co., were the places with over a century-long existence, the ladies used to go with their long lists to buy all the things they needed for the Christmas cake. Back then, we knew everyone. Now, the landscape has changed.

 The old market square on Vistarini Avenue, that is where everyone came to do all their shopping. There used to be a rickshaw stand which has now turned into an Auto-rickshaw (three-wheeler) stand. The Vistarini Avenue was named after Monsignor Giovanni Battista Vistarini, popularly known as the “Angelic Priest of Grand Street” who laboured in Negombo for 37 years since 1857 and was instrumental in building St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street.”

NOTE: Monsignor Giovanni Battista Vistarini (1817, Milan – 1895, Colombo)’s father, Signor Americo Vistarini, was highly connected, and was a judge. His mother: Signora Camilla, was the daughter of a marquis and niece of a governor of Vienna. He has ordained a priest on June 13, 1840. He was a Doctor in Theology and Philosophy. He has arrived in Ceylon on December 7, 1846. He was buried at St. Mary’s church burial grounds. 

(List of inscriptions on tombstones and monuments in Ceylon, By John Penry Lewis pg 153.) 

“The families came together in October to our family home Casa de Santa Lucia. Those were the days when relatives travelled tremendous distances to see their loved ones. Harin also told us that some of these older aunties arrived in carts decked in their matching Kabaya and lungi. These bullock carts are now an almost exotic sight in the midst of the city. During those days it was a mode of commute as well as a symbol of social status with differing varieties of carts used by the commoners and the elite. The aunties assembled in the large kitchen, to go through the process of making the Christmas cake. They cut the ingredients first and then soaked it in brandy for days. The ingredients mainly comprising of preserved imported fruits, cherries and plums, chow-chow and ginger preserves, raisins and candied peel and a variety of nuts, almond and cashew, were finely chopped with generous quantities of brandy and wine. “Having two pots of water on each side while mixing was a tradition.” 

Harin believes it was because it was more convenient to keep two pots of water to wash hands because during those days you had to run to the back of the house to find a tap, as the houses were large and the taps were at the back of the house. After mixing everything, they stored it in huge mixing bowls for months until the baking began. Then the aunties came back again when the creamed butter and the final ingredients needed to be added. These were handwritten recipes that had been passed down from generation to generation, but they knew it all by heart. 

Cleaning began in November. Everyone polished their floors and repainted their homes. “Sometimes neighbours used to colour coordinate down our road and the sound of the Hoover floor polisher was also quite apparent because every house used to polish their floors. It was a matter of deciding who had the shiniest red floor.” These preparations were made in November, since there were no celebrations for Catholics during this month, as it is the month of remembrance or the ‘departed’. 

If you visit Negombo on November 30th, you will find firecracker shops bustling with activity. They set these firecrackers off around midnight. That is to welcome Christmas on the 1st of December. According to a record by a Portuguese Jesuit Priest, in the 16th Century (1576), some Javanese prisoners were captured by the Portuguese and were kept in exile in the Negombo Fort before taking them to Goa. “They spent two years in captivity, including fifteen months in a Ceylonese prison at the Portuguese city of Negombo, weighted down with iron…A Cannon fire and the church bells welcomed December two days after they sailed to Goa, where they were to be part of an exchange of prisoners….” Manuel Lobato (1999). “They say that this bell was last rung about 50 years ago, but it’s now quite subtle. Some churches do it, while others don’t, but the firecrackers are on during that time.” Harin continued. 

The fourth Sunday before Christmas marks the beginning of the Advent Season, which leads up to Christ’s birth and the second coming. As a result, Advent lasts about a month in total. The first Sunday in Advent is dedicated to remembering the Patriarchs, the second Sunday to the Prophets, the third Sunday, also known as Rose Sunday or Gaudete Sunday, to John the Baptist, who proclaimed the Saviour, “On that day, the entire church is pink. Even the priests wear pink robes, which are rather nice.” and the fourth Sunday is dedicated to celebrating the blessed Mary, mother of Jesus. 

According to Harin, everyone got into the holiday spirit as December approached. In every home, you could hear Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby playing in the background. “We know what the order is as it goes on and on till someone changes it, because during those days we didn’t have shuffling and all that.” When people play these songs, or you hear neighbours practising popular Christmas tunes on the piano you know it’s that time of the year.

Decorations are something that everyone looks forward to when it comes to Christmas. What would Christmas be without decorations! We learned about how things have changed over time when we spoke with Harin. According to him, people nowadays decorate early because Christmas has become so commercialized. “Otherwise we won’t put up the Christmas tree and decorations until two days before Christmas.” He stated, “On the 20th or 21st, all the fresh Christmas trees come from the hill country to the market square, where they are displayed. And so that’s the time we look for the nicest tree and after bringing it home, we decorate.”

The crib, or the Christmas nativity scene, is one of the most important decorations. It is kept on the side, under the Christmas tree or at the entrance. “It was our absolute pride and joy when we were kids to make sure we had the best crib on the road because it was like a competition. Jesus’s father Joseph, Jesus’ mother Mary, and the infant Jesus are all present in the Nativity scene. Shepherds and sheep would also be present. Many people don’t keep the figure of the infant Jesus in the crib, and if they do, they cover it with a lovely net or a mantilla that is kept closed and only unveil when they return home after midnight mass on the 24th”.

During Christmas, it was also common to see small containers of sprouting paddy by the nativity scene in churches and households. This is something that Harin has researched. It is well known that in Goa and Bombay, along the Konkan and Malabar coast of India, wheat is used instead of paddy. “They attribute this custom to one of the loveliest of old Portuguese traditions called ‘Menino Jesus’, the little Jesus, brought by the Portuguese from the Western Islands. Families in Portugal used to make a pyramid of graduated shelves. One candle on top, two saucers of sprouted wheat, then two candles, four saucers of sprouted wheat, and so on. These represented the resurrection and the Light of Christ. At the bottom was a crèche of little figures brought from the Western Islands. In some houses, they would have the altar of Menino Jesus instead of a Christmas tree.” This tradition is rarely practised in Portugal. 

“I remembered a conversation with the late Fr. Vito Perniola (SJ). He stated that we acquired the custom from the Portuguese and adapted, hence, used paddy instead of wheat. This symbolism in the Lankan context meant prosperity and new life. History and context are intertwined with Christmas; it is important to keep the traditions alive. Only a few people would do that.” Harin added.

Christmas carols are synonymous with Christmas customs. The practice of singing Christmas carols begins early in the season. In September, professional and church community choirs begin rehearsals. So, they are all ready by December when the carol services and carolling commence its rounds. “Typically, a traditional carol service would call for 12 to 14 carols, so one is expected to start early!” 

“There are distinct traditions in different homes,” Harin explained. “We always had Christmas Eve’s dinner, especially at our house. We had all the relatives come over and it was a lovely ritual. The entire neighbourhood used to walk to church on that night for midnight mass. I recall the entire street smelling like perfume and sparkling like goldfish and all that. On this day, women and young girls preferred wearing the saree to church. The old-timers of yesteryear always wore suits and had their little whiskey flasks, I was told. After mass, the kissing and shaking of hands in greeting was always something one could not avoid! Which was also followed by a firework display and music at the Church square. On that night after coming back home from the Christmas mass, the celebration began.” 

You may note that all of the above already sounded like a celebration, but this is where the real celebration, the one that took months of preparation begins. Take a peek at how Harin’s family celebrated Christmas, complete with all the yuletide delectables.

“The Anglican side of my family would attend service on Christmas Day, belting out “Christians, awake, salute the happy morn” almost rattling the foundations at St. Stephen’s Church at the Dutch Fort, Negombo. The little church on the bastion would be filled beyond capacity, sometimes, with parishioners usually seen only on Christmas or Easter.” Harin jokes. 

“We would return home to breakfast and would invite a few church friends over. You have the Christmas breakfast table in the morning, and you will have a breudher, which most of us buy from Perera & Sons rather than make because it requires around three pounds of dough, one pound of butter, and 30 eggs, which is quite a lot! To go with the breudher, there’s salted butter and a ball of Edam cheese. Other sweetmeats and savouries such as Forminhas, canapés, Beef sandwiches, ijzer-koekjes (iron cookies in Dutch), Kalkals (deep-fried, Goan pastry curls), Bibikkan, and Meegomu Aluva were also laid out. The breakfast table concluded with a nice cup of tea or coffee.

Then for Christmas Day lunch, “The ladies were served Cinzano, Martini or milk wine, a concoction made by combining arrack with milk. It’s a sweet drink, which takes a transparent burgundy colour and tastes quite nice served chilled. There were drinks like iced coffee and fruit juices for the youngsters. There was always the very famous Christmas ghee and yellow rice with red onions, cloves, cardamoms, curry leaves, cashews and plums. Not many of us care for the famous English roast beef and plum pudding for lunch. Instead, we feast on ‘Yellow rice’, with its numerous accompaniments, and find it far more enjoyable.” said Harin. 

“Roast Chicken, the dry Padre curry cooked in toddy or arrack, a large baked fish, a feast of Prawns, cuttlefish, Brinjal Moju, cashew curry, deep-fried eggs, salads and papadams were always accompanied with a glass of Wine or Goan port.” 

The Ceylon Christmas cake played the main role, and let’s not forget that the Ceylon love cake or Bolo d’ Amor also made an appearance at Christmas.

The lunch on Christmas day was very traditional, while dinners always followed the Western palette. The two types of cuisines defined the local traditions with a twist of the European culture. 

“For Christmas Day dinner, the Pork Roast, Herb Roasted Turkey and stuffing were the main dishes. There were other options like, baked potatoes and gravy, sausage fritters, and an assortment of baked breads, cold meats and salads. The highlight of the dinner was Christmas pudding which was steamed for a good 5-6 hours. The lights were switched off and the pudding was lit up to flambé. Everyone would help themselves to substantial servings of pudding and brandy butter!

The December days that followed Christmas brought a plethora of Christmas parties, sing-alongs and dinner dances that were famous in Negombo. It’s non-stop partying until December 31st. Children in small bands strolling from door to door, singing and collecting money or sweets was another familiar scene in Negombo during those days. “This is a significant tradition that I believe we are losing.” Harin voiced his thoughts. 

Today, Christmas has become too commercial and people have forgotten what it is really about. It is not all about plastic decorations and shopping. Christmas is supposed to be a religious festival where families and friends come together and celebrate. 

It was time for Christmas visiting. “We used to always visit our neighbours and relatives’ homes. We used to go from house to house and when you visit you will get Christmas cake, crackers and cheese. 

Let us focus on some of the key churches in Negombo. Unlike the rest of the country people in Negombo do not address their main churches by their patron saints name. Instead, they would use the name of the street or the village. If they go to St. Mary’s Church, they would say that they are going to “Grand Street”, because the church is located on that street. There are many communities in Negombo, and as a result, all these communities have different churches that they go to. 

St. Mary’s church on Grand Street (Rua Grande during the Portuguese times) is in the central part of the town, and the church was for the Kurukulasūriya clan. A majority of the Bharatha and the Burgher communities also went there. The Sea Street Church or the St. Sebastian’s church was for the Varnakulasūriya clan. St. Peter’s Church or the Kehelkandadé church was for the Mihindukulasūriya community. 

The Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Dūwa plays a significant role in history of church literature and drama. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody (1902 ─ 1998) was the parish priest in 1939 and he revived the traditional Passion play and Christmas nativity play with his unique compositions. The Dūwa church on the second island, connected to the Negombo lagoon by a chain of islands; is the parent church of the Mihindukulasūriyas. These three communities, Kurukulasūriya Varnakulasūriya and Mihindukulasūriya, were the pioneers of the Karāva caste in Negombo: a reputedly brave warrior clan who migrated from South India centuries ago and taken to fishing to survive, assimilated the historical Portuguese- Dutch – British connections, but continued with their age-old preoccupation with the sea and lagoon. (Handbook for the Ceylon traveller.) They were bilingual Catholic fishermen, who became prominent capitalists during the 19th century.

The Dūwa church is significant during the Christmas season since it is the only church in Sri Lanka with a puppet-driven nativity show. It shows the full nativity scene across the church’s altar area, and they still use some of the older figures in the play even though they are quite old. This church also used to perform a well-known drama known as the “Raja thun kattuwa,” or “The Three Kings.”

It is a well-known tradition to celebrate the three kings who saw the star and came to see baby Jesus when he was born. The feast of the three kings, or the Epiphany, falls on the 6th of January. In traditional households, the figures of the three kings are kept inside the crib on the 6th. Interestingly, the tradition of celebrating the three kings also exists in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount and the church in Reis Magos Fort, in Goa. They choose three young boys representing three villages and dress them up as kings to celebrate this occasion. This could be a remnant of an old Portuguese tradition.

“A good deal of what we talked about remains practically unknown. We take so much for granted about the names, customs and facts, that we know very little or nothing about their origin and meaning.” Harin shared his thoughts. 

On the 31st night, as most people attended church for the watch-night mass, the church rang the bells once more at midnight to bless the New Year. With all the blessings, the sound of the bells ringing and firecrackers welcoming the New Year, Christmas ended just as it began. 

Written by Isora Liyanaarachchi 

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