Christmas in Jaffna then, was an extremely different scenario. There was no cacophonous commercialisation of Christmas. Trade and industry were not sufficiently developed, except for our three famous traditional exports. So there was nothing to advertise to persuade customers that their Christmas would be happier only if they bought their brand of refrigerators, CD players and electrical gadgets.
Another factor was that Jaffna society was largely Hindu, the Christians forming a small but significant minority. Christmas had an impact only on the Christian community in the vicinity of the churches, literally littered all over Jaffna.
Another reason was that the Jaffna man was very frugal in his ways. He spent, but wisely on absolute necessities. If a refrigerator was a necessity, he would buy it, but not necessarily to make his Christmas happier. The best of people lived in the villages, where there was no electricity. ‘Petromax’ lanterns and ‘Aladdin’ lamps were the order of the day. Where there were Christmas trees, candles were lit on the branches, instead of twinkling bulbs.
Correlated to this factor of frugality was that celebration was not in the culture of the Jaffna Tamils. That was one reason why they were wealthy. Celebration was looked upon as a waste of money. We all grew up without birthday parties. Only death anniversaries of loved ones were observed, but no parties. The Hindus washed their homes clean and ate vegetarian food on that day. The Christians visited the graveyard. Only now, birthday parties have become common, but only for children in Tamil homes. Celebrations of Christmas were there in a limited way, but the emphasis was always on the spiritual aspect of it. We wore new clothes for Christmas, lit crackers, ate special food, but that was all. The topers drank but never had a party. They drank in the privacy of their homes, for it was a public disgrace if you were seen drunk, and a huge joke to the public if you were seen tottering on the roads.
A carol service of all the Christian schools ushered in the Christmas season in Jaffna. This was held on the final Saturday of November, before all term tests began and the venue was the Town Hall, Jaffna, as it was then known. This was followed by carol services usually on Sundays, but sometimes on December 24, in all the churches.
A few days before Christmas, the church choirs visited homes singing familiar and unfamiliar carols. In this way, money was collected for the Sunday School Christmas tree, usually held in all church halls on December 27 or 28. In our church, the girls were dressed in white sarees, and held candles when they went carolling. They looked very angelic, as was their singing. To the little ones, it was a great thrill to see the carol singers come with a Santa Claus, wearing a mask and the red robes. The tallest boy in the Church was selected to be the Santa. A pillow was tied around his waist, to indicate prosperity. Of course, everything was covered by his robe, which was stored in the vestry of the Church and only taken out twice a year - for carolling and the Sunday School Christmas Tree. The carol party was joined by a lot of boys, who came to eat the short-eats served by the Christian homes. The short-eats were not thosai and vadai, but modern short-eats like patties and butter cake. Rich cake was not in vogue at the time, and if ever made, were rarely given to outsiders. Butter cakes were baked by the now non-existent Sinhala bakeries. Domestic ovens were not in vogue at the time. We battered the ingredients in a cake tray and gave it to the bakery, which charged a fee for baking.
On Christmas day, we never had a mid night service, because many of the old and infirm could not attend it. So our Christmas service was at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. on Christmas morn. It was our tradition to wear our new clothes to church, and in a way, exhibit them. After the service was over, each one would wish the other “Happy Christmas” with a hug and a kiss or just a handshake, depending on the level of attachment. Some nominal Christians attended the Christmas service and they were at the butt end of all the jokes, behind their backs, of course. They were referred to as “Christmas Christians” or “Annual Christians”. It was joked about that they wished each other good bye in Church, saying “See you next year for Christmas!”
After the Christmas service, we went back home and the celebrations began. The words “Christmas celebration” had a different connotation in Colombo. But in Jaffna it was not so. It was never associated with bottles. It was very similar to the Sinhala Avurudda celebrations, minus the auspicious times. We lit crackers when we went home and those were the harmless Chinese crackers, which never made a frightening sound to scare away all the pet dogs, nor injured anybody lighting them. They were safe to handle and burst on a side only, without littering the garden with bits of paper. The most thrilling moment was to wait for the arrival of the postman, who was the most welcome guest in every Christian home. He would announce his arrival with a unique four inch whistle, which could be heard in the entire neighbourhood, and he never came drunk! In the fifties, land phones were very few, except in schools, hospitals, Principals’ bungalows and post offices, but not so much in private homes. There were no unfeeling e-mails, mobile phones and SMS services. So our only mode of communication was the postal service, which was very efficiently managed those days. A Christmas card sent on December 23 to a Colombo address would reach the person the very next day. Very often, the receiver would promptly send a Christmas card in reply on that day, to reach the Jaffna address on Christmas day. The Christmas cards were locally made, but contrary to popular belief about local products, very attractively designed and priced at 25 cents only! There were no problems about postmen working on Christmas days, because almost all of them were Hindus and did not mind working on Christmas day. They got their overtime pay anyway.On Christmas day, we sent sweets and savouries on a plate to the neighbours, who in turn sent us their plates of short-eats. The clannishness was quite evident in the neighbourly gestures. The Christmas trees in private homes were turned out with Tamarind tree branches. Later they gave way to Casurina tree branches. We bought Christmas tree blinkers for Rs. 7.50. We stored them and took them out annually. Christmas lunch was very special in every Christian home - not roast turkeys, the existence of which we read only in story books and the media. It was a good and tasty meal prepared by the mum in every family - not something costing Rs. 9,500 in a five star hotel!
In the evenings, fond relations visited each other and it was continued on the days after Christmas as well.
Celebration was not in the culture of the Jaffna Tamils. That was one reason why they were wealthy. Celebration was looked upon as a waste of money. We all grew up without birthday parties. Only death anniversaries of loved ones were observed, but no parties
The next interesting event was the Sunday School Christmas event, usually held on 27 or 28 of December. The kids looked forward to this event with eager excitement because Santa would bring presents to all registered students of the Sundays Schools. Presents for each were bought out of the money collected by the carol singers. Even babies were given gifts by Santa. He usually arrived late, to the sound of crackers and he himself would come carrying a lot of balloons, bursting them with a pin, one by one. He would apologise to the kids that he got late because he was coming from Toyland and that the plane came late. Next was the prize-giving, to the delight of the kids. They were enthralled to get near Santa and receive a ‘masked kiss (Santas wore masks).
Christmas lunch was very special in every Christian home - not roast turkeys, the existence of which we read only in story books and the media. It was a good and tasty meal prepared by the mum in every family - not something costing Rs. 9,500 in a five star hotel!
The babies screamed in fear as they were taken close to Santa. So it was really the parent who received the gift on behalf of the baby. After reading the above, I am pretty certain you would not like to be in Jaffna during the Christmas season. But in reality December is the best time to visit Jaffna, because the whole place could be nearly as cool as Nuwara Eliya and the paddy fields would be a carpet of green.