‘Twas the Night before Christmas
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Everywhere we go, the festive cheer is in the air and every shop is decorated with twinkling lights and boughs of molly. Christmas is one of those festivals where you do not have to believe in a particular religion in order to take part in the festive cheer.
The whole of Colombo, from one street corner to the next, is sparkling with the buoyancy of Christmas. Creativity is overflowing, from the pink and blue lights hung in Crescat Boulevard to the larger than life Christmas tree that dominates the Independence Arcade.
Catholics around the world celebrate the Birth of Christ on the 25th of December each year. However, the origins of Christmas in Sri Lanka came from the influence of the culture of European colonies when Sri Lanka was under the European rules from the 16th century to the 20th century.
There are many legends and myths regarding Christmas, and most of those who take part in the celebrations have no idea where these annual traditions came from.
For instance, the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree began in Medieval Germany. Someone somewhere down the line looked up into the sky and decided to decorate a tree with stars to represent that single star that led the wise men to the Holy Child. The Christmas tree was brought to America by the early German emigrants in 1747. In time, the anomaly became a norm and slowly grew into tradition.
Christmas Lights too have a significant purpose. According to medieval lore, people decorated their window sills and doorways with bright lights to represent Jesus as the “Guiding Light” and also to guide lost souls to their loved ones.
Various shopping malls and other buildings around Colombo had clumps of mistletoe or wreaths made of mistletoe hung on most of the entrances. While it adds to the Christmas cheer, most people do not know the lore behind mistletoe or why the “kiss under the mistletoe” is so popular. In ancient times, people believed mistletoe to have magical properties because, according to belief, mistletoe actually fell from heaven. A kiss under the mistletoe was believed to bring reconciliation while hanging mistletoe on the entrance meant goodness and grace will enter the place. Somewhere down the line, mistletoe became associated exclusively with Christmas because of its green leaves and red berries.
Each night, from the 7th of December various caroling groups sang to a huge audience at the Independence Arcade. People from all over Colombo gathered to listen to these groups. Caroling during Christmas actually originated from the Bible itself, and is one of the few Christmas traditions that have a direct connection to the birth of Christ. Caroling is a tradition that is extracted from the Angels who sang in joy of the birth of Christ; “Hark the Herald Angels sing, glory to the new born King”.
All over Colombo, in almost every food court and shopping mall, there is a Santa Clause waiting to entertain the children while the parents shop. The origins of Santa Clause came from legends of the patron saint for children, St. Nicholas. He was actually a 4th century bishop from the Netherlands, who was famous for giving gifts to children. His feast day, December 6th, became a children’s holiday in Holland, where he was known as Sint Nikolaas. The name “Santa Clause” only originated because the English Colonists in New York could not pronounce the Dutch name. Eventually, the English began to celebrate his feast day on the 25th of December, to coincide with Christmas.
The tradition of gift giving began when the Magi or the Three Wise Kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby in the manger. However, Catholics also believe that the true origin of gift giving came from the words “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”.
Christmas, as most of us know, is the celebration of the birth of Christ. However, what most of us don’t know is the fact that Jesus was not really born on the 25th of December. His birth date is actually traced back to early March or late fall and the 25th of December was only picked to coincide with the Roman tradition of Saturnalia, a festival honouring the god of agriculture, Saturn, on the winter solstice.