Christmas rituals

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

The chapel at Trinity College is rammed – and it’s really a large church. For a 6.30pm start it’s advisable to turn up at 5.30 for a good seat. We brought a van-load of guests with us and settled down for the long wait. Trinity College Chapel – where Sally was confirmed many years ago (though confirmed as what is not stated) – is an architectural gem; a surprisingly successful fusion of the English ecclesiastical and Sri Lankan temple traditions.

At first all you see is a river of slowly moving candles descending the slope from the hillside above the church, which is eventually revealed as the choir processing into the building singing Once in Royal David’s City as beautifully as any English cathedral choir. After they have taken their places in the choir stalls the rest of us get to join in. Lustily in my case – although a committed atheist I do love a good sing and the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes, certainly at Christmas. There were carols in Sinhala, in Tamil, in French and in German as well as the usual English standards.

The brief silences between lessons and carols are broken by the sounds of a tropical night, to wit frogs and monks. The frogs on the whole are more tuneful. The monks from the Temple of the Tooth maintain a continuous whinge aimed at reminding everyone just whose religion is boss hereabouts. Another reason why I sing as loudly as I can, having no time for the kind of official Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka. Happy to be a Christian for an evening. Support the underdog, I say.

The Festival of Commerce

But as everyone knows, Christmas is really a celebration of commerce,which is why Sri Lankans, who of course are mainly Buddhist, have embraced it so keenly. Everyone loves an excuse to shop (except me). Homesick? Come to the Kandy City Centre shopping mall any time after the first of December and you’ll hear enough piped Slade, Cliff Richard, Boney M and John Lennon to make you wish you’d been born anywhere but the UK.

The checkout girls in the supermarkets all wear Santa hats. Cargills, which has the strongest colonial roots of them all, stocks ersatz Christmas supplies such as candied peel made from pumpkins. Its more upstart rival, Arpico, offered a Christmas raffle in which the prize was ‘A Tropical Christmas’. Funny, I could have sworn we were in the tropics already. A trip to Lapland might have been more enticing. Though one of the prize destinations was the chance to sample the volcanic delights of Bali. First prize: a week in Bali. Second prize: two weeks in Bali.

The turkey

Our Christmas meat of choice has always been ribs of beef but Sri Lankan beef is tough and Sri Lankan butchery is no respecter of the basic anatomy of the ox. So it was turkey for us, plus a ham. In very good time Sally went to order it from Keells supermarket. The guy on the meat counter was knowledgeable and his English excellent. He produced an order book and faithfully recorded the details of our order. It was the only entry in a very large book, but no matter – we had got in early. We checked a few days before we planned to pick it up and were assured the order would be all ready for us. “No problem” – those Sri Lankan words of doom which invariably mean “There is a problem but we’d rather not mention it”. Came the appointed collection day and our original contact of course wasn’t on shift. His colleagues professed total unawareness of anyone ever having ordered anything from their store. Instead they proudly announced: “Ham have, Madam. Turkey also” and indicated a tray of sliced ham and (only in Sri Lanka) a frozen cooked turkey. After a while a manager was summoned along with the elusive order book in which Sally’s remained the only name. But somehow the manager did manage to produce a fresh turkey and a smoked ham from the depths of his private store.

The ham was boiled up, spiked with cloves and roasted for Christmas Eve and was fairly tasty. No complaints. But oven cooking a large bird is a risky business when the mains supply is as unreliable as it is in our fairly remote bit of Sri Lanka. We did eventually manage to get it done, if not to perfection then at least to an acceptable and non-threatening standard, despite the Ceylon Electricity Board and with the help of our trusty (and rusty) generator, and we and our guests sat down to Christmas lunch only half an hour after we’d promised. All the trimmings, too – stuffing, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry sauce. All home made. You can even buy frozen sprouts here, we discovered, but unless you’re seriously rich and absolutely love sprouts it’s probably best not to.

Deck the halls

Half of the container we shipped out from England in 2015 consisted of boxes of Christmas decorations – or so it seemed to me. Well, this is a big house, they were all needed. Especially the garden lights. Unfortunately the humid climate buggers up anything electrical in short order and our once impressive Yorkshire supply of garden lighting has dwindled this year to a handful of serviceable examples. We’ve made a mental note to hit the shops before Wesak (the Buddhist Festival of Light, held in May) when they are full of all the things we’ll need for future Christmases. If we’re really clever we’ll put it in our Google calendar.

The saga of obtaining a live Christmas tree in 2015 is related in Broke’n’English. Though we did eventually succeed after a fashion,the cost, stress and paucity of the end result decided us, reluctantly, in favour of an artificial tree last year, which was removed again from its cardboard coffin, spruced up (sorry!) and hung with a selection of baubles from our vast collection. But we did deck the veranda, if not the halls, with real fir branches from one of the two remaining fir trees in our garden (our former Project Manager, having initially planted us a sweet-smelling patch of fir trees, decided for reasons best known to himself to fell the lot shortly before we moved here, but two survived).

‘Tis the season…

… or is it? Christmas was a Christian appropriation of midwinter solstice festivities and has clear seasonal implications in the north. Even in (most of) Australia and New Zealand it marks midsummer. In Sri Lanka it doesn’t mark anything seasonal except, vaguely, the end of the north east monsoon and the start of the dry season that lasts through to some time in April. Usually. But climate change has made all that into a lottery as well.

Not having seasons, other than wet and dry, explains a lot of cultural differences between tropical Asia and, say, Europe. If you have a winter where nothing grows you need to plan in order to stay alive, and planning ability eventually becomes genetically selected, I would imagine. In the wet tropics there is always wild food to be had and there is no great need for planning in order to survive. There is still the need to plan for other things – building roads, developing businesses and so forth – but Sri Lankans along with other tropical Asian people tend to be less good at that than us Europeans. Or so I think.

Happy New Year!

2 thoughts on “Christmas rituals”

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