So this is Christmas!

Some well-known personalities and others share memories of festive seasons past and what it means this year round
By Namali Premawardhana

It’s Christmas. Carried away with Christmas cheer? Not quite? Through the years it seems the competitiveness and pressure, as with every other aspect of life, has come to weigh down a season traditionally considered one for celebrating the birth of a man who set all of mankind free.

Though some continue the traditional festivities, for many, the celebration of Christmas, has become something else.

Prof. Ashley Halpe, now nearly in his 80th year, recalls the Christmases of his childhood, the Midnight Mass. “We never omitted the spiritual element,” he says, recalling how Jesus’s “extraordinary self-sacrifice” was a constant example for his life, the “shattering challenge” he wrote of in ‘Waiting for the Bells’. But integral too was “the fun of coming back from mass to see what Santa Claus had brought for us”, and the joy of unwrapping presents.

Prof. Ashley Halpe Julian Bolling

He remembers the Christmas cake, made at home, and all the “goodies and merry-making”. “We still do as much of it as we can,” he continues, but it depends on what’s possible at that time, “which part of the family is in which part of the globe and what their schedules are like.”

A time when Christmas was not hectic was “a long, long time ago!” in his childhood, laughs Jerome de Silva. He describes in vivid detail the Christmas carols, the Santa Clauses and the “large, towering Christmas trees everywhere!” from Colombo over half a century ago. “It used to be beautiful.” The extended family would get together “for the chicken curry, the turkey, the smoked beef, the corned beef, the ham and all the other lovely things my mother made.” “In the evening we would bring in Jolly Bombs, sit around and light the thing up in the room and it would go BOOM and shower us with little presents and trinkets!” he laughs.

Kanthini Fernando has similar memories of extravagant Christmas meals and (literal) explosions in the living room. She also recalls, “all these exotic fireworks!” and visiting “fascinating” aunts who wore their traditional Dutch Sunday-best with pearls and “entertained” them with cakes and tea, and standing in line to kiss their grandfather as he pressed money into their hands.

Chithrangani Wanigasooriya remembers growing up in one of the very few Christian families in the village of Eheliyagoda. “We couldn’t afford an extravagant celebration, but we did the best we could,” she shares, describing how the house was repaired and repainted for the season. After the morning service, the five children in the family would distribute kevili as is traditionally done for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. “Everybody came over on Christmas day,” Chithrangani recalls and her family home is still open to all for the Christmas meal, after the morning service that the extended family continues to attend together.

Jerome De Silva Eshantha Peiris

But the trip from Kandy to Eheliyagoda combined with last-minute shopping is a hassle for Chithrangani. For Jerome too, the busyness of modern times inevitably leaves him “absolutely exhausted by Christmas morning,” he says – tired of the celebrations before they begin.

Rukshan Perera too remembers Christmases of family get-togethers and good times in general, but has made it something different for himself and his family, by choice. “We try to use the time to do things for people who need help” he says, describing carolling sessions at elders’ homes and the Cancer Hospital. The festivities still prevail, “but now we’re much more focused on helping people who are unable to enjoy the season so well”.

Ranjan Josiah (47), once bassist for Flame and currently involved in community development, has a similar perspective. While his family still enjoys the festivities, they also spend more time looking for ways to make life easier for families less comfortable. “When I was young, the highpoint was Santa Claus. Now, even when you go to a supermarket you can’t help but notice the despair on people’s faces,” he says.

For Savithri Sumanthiran, General Secretary of FOCUS (Fellowship of Christian University Students), Christmas in Kandy in the 1970’s was a “fun time” when all the family came together at her grandfather’s house. “My mum used to make the traditional Christmas cake, and the meal was special.” The violence of the late 80’s, when Savithri was an undergraduate, drastically changed her view. “We called for fasting and prayer on the day, and then slowly figured there’s no exhortation in the Bible to celebrate the occasion at all!” Her three children and the families of many of her Christian friends from her undergraduate days, have since, never had a Christmas tree or presents. “I drop my older kids off at church if they want to attend service on Christmas morning, but neither my husband nor I attend unless it’s a Sunday,” she says. “Some believe we simply need to make Christmas a spiritual exercise rather than an extravagant festival, but we take the rather extreme view and abolish it. It’s a difficult thing to do, and nearly impossible to pass on,” she continues, adding that she and her husband are firm in their conviction nevertheless.

Thrice Olympic swimmer and 15-times SAF gold-medallist Julian Bolling recalls that Christmas time when he was growing up, was a time of too much food. The extended family came together and Julian remembers sending up hot-air balloons. “We still have the family breakfast and lunch,” Julian shares, “so the next generation has the same kind of Christmas.” But he doesn’t attend church now. “It’s not to say I’ve lost my faith, I search God out and I find him, just not there,” he says.

For Shanila Alles, 32 year-old entrepreneur at Zsa Zsa Gallery, this Christmas is different. A few months ago she gave birth to her “first-born son” Rayaka. “It really put things in perspective for me,” she says. “I keep wondering how difficult it must have been back in the day when Jesus was born!” Even before, Christmas had changed to being about Jesus. “No matter how much garbage you’ve picked up over the year, He is able to forgive you for that.”

Eshantha Peiris’s schedule over the last few weeks has been chock-full of carol services, school Christmas programmes and SOSL events. “Nowadays, I really don’t know what we will do,” he says. “When we were in school, there was all the hype and the holiday fun, the family getting together for a good time and all that,” says Damien Fernando from Voice.Print, “but now you’re so busy you don’t have time for any it!” Even for those not in the limelight, Christmas is hectic. Undergraduate Shalini Abayasekara still makes date cake at home with her mother and grandmother, but is quite caught up in carol services and youth activities through the month. Ultimately for her though, “Christmas is about Jesus of course and how He came to save me”.

Talk against the commercialization of Christmas is common, and regret at busy lifestyles but where do we find the time or energy to even consider a change, if that is in the calling? What are you doing this Christmas?

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