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Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country with a Christian community of only around seven percent, and yet, Christmas is celebrated indiscriminately by the whole population. The celebrations tend to become more secular among non-Christians and even among Christians, but when they are devoutly religious, it is the Roman Catholic traditions held by most Sri Lankan Christians that have the greatest influence. However, since Sri Lanka was ruled by Portugal, Netherlands, and Britain (in that order) for around 150 years each, there are diverse streams of traditions that have blended on the island. Finally, St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have brought Christianity to Sri Lanka in the First Century A.D., and these original Sri Lankan Christians have been there ever since, also influencing how Sri Lankan Christmases are kept.
Many believers go to midnight masses on Christmas Eve to welcome Christmas morning. Sometimes, these (partly outdoor) services involve attendees lighting up thousands of firecrackers at the stroke of midnight. Firecrackers loom large in almost every Sri Lankan holiday, so it is not surprising they have become a part of Christmas as well.
When mass is over, attendees go home to eat cake, drink wine, and exchange Christmas presents. Many then eat a special Christmas breakfast later that morning and go back to church for Christmas Day services as well. Churches also often organize carolling teams to sing Christmas songs all around town, particularly at orphanages, hospitals, and the homes of the disabled and home-bound elderly. Food and presents will be given to the needy at this time of year as well, and Christmas greeting cards with both religious and non-religious messages will be distributed.
Most Sri Lankans meet with friends and relatives for Christmas parties and dinners, either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Hotels and businesses also frequently throw big Christmas parties, which include dinners and dances. Homes and places of businesses decorate Christmas trees, put up lights, and put out “natural decorations” like twigs and leaves. Children wait for gifts from Santa Claus (“Naththal Seeya”), as in the West, and the jolly old man shows up at local shopping malls.
Christmas dinners generally consist of roast turkey, mincemeat pies, “Christmas cakes,” and Breudher, which is a buttery Dutch yeast cake. In the spirit of the season, Christian families frequently give out platters of food to neighbours of other faiths and friends.
Thus, Sri Lankan Christmases are religious for some but secular for most. They are much like Christmas in the West in many ways, though certainly not a carbon copy.
Three things for tourists to do if in Sri Lanka around Christmas time are:
- Take in the full celebrations in the capital city of Colombo. The lights and decorations are particularly stunning at Cinnamon Grand hotel, and the largest Christmas tree in the city can generally be found at Park street in the Colombo 07. There will be parties to attend in many hotels and restaurants, so you don’t necessarily have to know someone. For midnight services, you might consider St. Andrew’s Scottish Kirk, which has masses in English.
- Go Christmas shopping, which figures rather large in Sri Lankan. The setting off of fireworks on December 1st hails in the Christmas season and its gigantic price discounts. You might want to consider House of Fashions, the largest department store in Sri Lanka, the Majestic City Mall, and the assortment of shops called “Odel,” all located in Colombo. Don’t forget to stop for Christmas food, which is served at most Sri Lankan eateries this time of year, including roast turkey and fruity steamed pudding. You will also want to taste some authentic hot curry and, perhaps, some locally caught Sri Lankan crabs.
- It would be a shame to visit Sri Lanka without seeing the beaches. Some of the best beaches to tour include: Unawatuna, a horseshoe-shaped beach near small villages; Bentota and Induruwa, which form the long stretch of sand on the western coast that is packed with high-end hotels; and Arugam Bay, renowned for its surfing magic.
Should you tour the South Asian island-nation of Sri Lanka this Christmas, you will be met with an abundance of festivities. You will see how Christmas traditions change when transported to a new land and allowed to mix in with the local culture.