Saturday, November 18, 2006

Christmas in Sri Lanka

Christmas in the good old days
By Noel Crusz

Here I am on the ocean liner THE PACIFIC SKY in the Coral Sea on a pre-Christmas voyage from Sydney to New Caledonia.

The memories of how we celebrated Christmas in Sri Lanka come back.

The house was painted, the walls white-washed with low black taredgings all round the rooms and the chairs were re-cushioned. The traveling tailor came home, measured the rooms, and made the curtains on ourold Singer sewing machine.

Red Mansion polish was applied on the cement floor, which got a shine from a heavy handled brush. Cake making was a ritual, where my mother laid the rules and we offered to help. We ate a good many cadjunuts and raisins There was the wooden ice-box with sawdust and a heavy metal covering for slabs of ice.

Two weeks before Christmas the children were taken in a hired car toPettah's Main Street. The well known shoe store was T.G.M. Perera's and we were fitted with the best shoes. Even Jamaliya's Shoe Store in Wellawatta took in orders for boots, the teenage fashion of the thirties.Before World War II, there was Ono & Co. This Japanese toy shop owned by a Mr. Numano had a wonderful array of toys from Japan.

The Main Street tailor measured us, as we provided China silk for our shirts. The silk of course was bought in early November from the Chinese peddlers who plied their trade on bicycles. Some of the Chinamen carried their bundles on their back, with a heavy stick for balance. Main Streetin Pettah in the early thirties was very narrow. It had to cope with the tram lines and bullock carts. Our Christmas shopping included a visit to X.P. Paivas for lunch andice cream. Round the corner was The Rupee Store, where for one rupee you could buy many things. Millers, Cargills, Simes and Whiteaways dominated the Fort shopping.We went to Hunters and Siedles and The Roche Brothers shops for many items.

I cannot forget the shopping in the golden mile of Colpetty, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta. The Wickremesinghe Brothers headed by George imported the famous Mende Radiograms from Germany.We cannot forget the well known shops in Wellawatta: M.P. Gomez, A.W. Jansz, J.B. De Pinto, Nooranis, Jamaliya's Boot Works and many famous boutiques.

As a boy I went with my father to A.W. Jansz's store near High Street. We bought Dutch Edam Cheese, as an accompaniment for the Christmas breudher. I still remember Jansz bellowing to a tardy salesman:"What are you standing there shooting 'papaws'! Jansz sold liquor and all types of hardware. We bought wire-netting to build chicken coops.

The shopping spree in Colombo included a visit to Pilawoos for atreat of buriyani. Elephant House played a significant part in booking Christmas cakes. Yet there was one last item that was in the shopping list: Fireworks. We gazed in wonder at the array of fireworks in the Fireworks Palace opposite the Fort Railway Station. Sparklers, Roman candles, sky rockets, Catherine wheels, squibs, crackers of every size were there in the showcase. Christmas was on. The cake was made and sent to the bakery. The servants were pounding and roasting, making string hoppers and pittu, cutting up A.W. Jansz ham, with cutlets and seeni sambol. Churches saw long queues at the Confessional.

I remember well the Allied troops celebrating Christmas in Ceylon. In the Seminary in St. Francis Zavier in Bambalapitiya, the African troops came for Midnight Mass.

In Bandarawela, the Italian prisoners of war, brought tears when theysang the Adeste Fideles.

As I look out now at a placid sea, the Christmas memories for an expatriate find no sequence. There were Christmas trees from up-country estates sent by train. Carol parties on Christmas Eve went about in lorries.

Arthur Van Langenberg helped me to stage a massive Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve at St. Lucia's Cathedral Square in Kotahena. There were hundreds in the cast. The beautiful teenager Camille Cramer played Mary, as she was seated astride on a real donkey, led by a young doctor, who played Joseph. As Gerry Paul hit the Police drums, the donkey took off, with Josephclinging to its tail, and the audience, including Mary in ripples of laughter. As midnight came, there were a never-ending sound of fireworks andsky rockets, that would surely have awoken the Christ Child.

Carol parties came to the doorstep. At Kawdana, children in costume came around singing Sinhala carols. A hand cart with an illuminated crib was thebackdrop. They even brought a portable harmonium. Of course the homes saw families sitting for a feast of string hoppers, ham, breudher, cheese, mulligatany and cake. There were presents near the family Christmas tree.

The postman, the dhoby, the baker, the fishmonger were the regular Christmas early birds. They all got cash, plus a tot of arrack or gin.

As children we waited eagerly for the Sakkili Band. These were the poor men and women who carried the night soil buckets, before the water closet and drainage era. Many householders were generous in the cash tips they gave them. An extra pint of arrack helped them in their dance!

The famous Kukul Charlie also made his trek down all the lanes. Those were the days when Donovan Andree dominated and enriched the local entertainment scene. Donovan brought down the Ice Follies. Soon night came once more. We lit our fireworks, saw the servants lighting the big Roman candles and sky rockets.

The radio blasted yuletide melodies.As my ship went on its voyage, I was dreaming not of a 'White Christmas', but of the Christmases I spent in Sri Lanka. Nowhere in the world did I ever experience Christmas, as the Ceylonese prepare and enjoy it. I can still hear the hustle and bustle in Pettah, the cries of the street vendors and the pavement hawkers. The wailing of the mamma-pappa balloon, the rattle of the toy-carts, and the delicacies from the gram sellers are unforgettable.An Aussie Christmas is pea-nuts compared to a Christmas in Ceylon.

I do not wonder why my parents christened me Noel, and my sister Noeline.

I am reminded of J.P. de Fonseka who gave lustre to Christmas writing. He edited the Christmas issue of St. Mary's parish bulletin in Bambalapitiya. He wrote: "St. Thomas Aquinas theology avoids the Christmas cake and wine and toys and crackers and family reunions of children and parents... He considers the mystery of the GOD man, without whom the Christmas wines rejoice not and the crackers crack in vain."

[sent in by Anne-Marie Kellar in Colombo, whose parents marriage was solemnized by the Rev Fr. Noel Crusz during the time he was a priest]

Noel Crusz, the author of this wonderful piece, was the priest who married my parents at St Mary's Church Bambalapitiya in 1954. He was Dad's classmate and best buddy, and as a Wedding gift to my Dad he had arranged for Bing Crosby (who was in India at the time) to sing at the wedding, my Dad being a huge fan..Sadly, it was not to be, as Bing Crosby fell ill with diarrhea and could not make it.Noel Crusz gave up the priesthood and became a layman-- and achieved fame as a writer, journalist and broadcaster here and in Australia.

I really don't know if it's something in the air that is making so many people reminisce in the past few days of the "good ole days", as I've been getting so many such emails from folk all over the world, reminiscing about the days gone by!! They all are so nice to read and, even though I don't consider myself "an ageing Burgher" like this writer does, I still find lights coming on in the cobwebs of my mind when I read all these beautiful articles! Memories of the old days when we Burghers would never attend a wedding unless we had stockings, hat and gloves. And yes, we did dress so well--even to the rugby matches at the Havies and CH, when we wore the latest fashions, and it used to be a treat to the guys to arrive early just to watch the parade of all the outfits! Everyone wore their best to church on Sundays, and no one ever travelled overseas if they were not dressed in their elegant best!

Nowadays, when I see people so shabbily dressed all the time-- even to church, I cannot help but shake my head in disgust. People walk out of their homes to rugby matches, church, the cinema etc dressed as if they had just got out of bed, very often. And it is quite a common sight to see people at airports boarding planes in rubber slippers, shorts and even singlets!And what really makes me mad is seeing female guests at weddings dressed all in black!

My word, whatever happened to etiquette and decency?? It has always been a rule that no guest ever wore either black or white to a wedding! Oh for the days when, as the writer below states, "men wore lounge suits or, at lest long sleeved shirts to the 6 0'clock film show at the Majestic and ladies wore hats and gloves to even song at the DRC church ...."!

Call me oldfashioned, but I would give a lot to go back to those grand old days when people were so very decent and cultured and the way of life here in Colombo was so genteel and altogether so much more "civilised". Well, we can dream, can't we?

Anne-Marie Kellar, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Nov 2006


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