Christmas is a popular religious holiday, and even those who don’t belong to the faith look eagerly towards when the heavy rains of November give way to balmy weather that marks the beginning of the season.
This time of year means different things to people; some look forward to celebrating Christmas at home, or spending time with family and friends, while others look forward to getting out of the city for a holiday by the beach or up in the hills.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Christmas and other celebrations were conducted before — relatives and friends who usually made their way to Sri Lanka for the holidays were restricted from doing so, those in the country were unable to cross borders, and restaurants, hotels, cafes and other public spaces were either closed or limited to a few.
Despite the country being ‘opened up’, this year, Sri Lankans are facing a new challenge in the form of the increasing economic crisis in the country. These challenges include dealing with shortages of milk powder, rice and other essential items and price increases in groceries, cooking gas and fuel.
Festive Foods and Drinks
Bakers start preparing for Christmas mid or late November, with several of the high-end hotels in Colombo organising events to mark ‘Christmas cake mixing’ for when preparation officially begins.
Bruedher — a popular Dutch cake — and the inimitable Yule Logs usually only make their appearance just before Christmas, although the popular rich cake is available much earlier.
Bakers ‘Perera & Sons’ and ‘Fab’ are two of the most common ‘go-to’ places for Bruedher, Yule Logs and Christmas cake, but consumers have noted an increase in prices of their items to keep up with the rising costs and the economic situation in the country. Will there be less sales of items this year as people reluctantly forgo some of their Christmas fare in order to ensure their purse is not stretched?
Most home bakers have also been affected by the increased price of goods and domestic gas. Nilani*, who lives in Wellawatte said she made good profits during the festive season of 2019, which is when she began her business. Unfortunately this year, due to the high prices of most ingredients, she can only make a small profit, she said.
Amandha*, a home baker in Negombo, said that she too is facing difficulties in regard to buying ingredients and she fears that she may not be able to sustain her part-time business in the long run, as there are daily increases in the prices of some ingredients such as cashews and glace cherries, which are needed for rich cake.
“I noticed there was an increase in the prices of some of the ingredients I use for my cakes every few weeks, ever since I started my business in January this year. Once I get an advance payment for orders I can’t ask my customers for more money, due to the price increases,” lamented Amandha*.
Sharmila*, the owner of a catering and cake making business in Dehiwala, also had to increase the prices of her love cake, rich cake and fruit cake by Rs. 1,000 due to the hike in the prices of ingredients and domestic gas. After much thought, however, she decided to sell wrapped pieces of rich cake at Rs. 220 as opposed to the Rs. 300 she had planned initially, in order to sustain her customer base.
Even the high-end cafes in Colombo, which are usually the go-to places for Christmas goodies, have been hit hard. Melissa Peters, the owner of Bakes by Bella, said she and her team were shocked at the prices of ingredients for their Christmas treats when they placed orders last month.
For some families, Christmas lunch or dinner consists of a full roast chicken or roast turkey, along with assorted vegetable dishes, while other families serve yellow rice or fried rice, with curries and dishes like brinjal moju. But this year, with the price increases some may have to look at less expensive options for their Christmas lunch or dinner.
Family traditions play an important role this time of year, whether it’s decorating the Chritsmas tree together or attending midnight mass.
“Decorating the Christmas tree and house is a huge part of our family’s Christmas celebration.” Amaani Lenore told Roar.“We would actually sit down and decide on the colour scheme before we bought the decorations and the lights. My grandmother also bakes Christmas cakes every year, and my sister and I usually go over to her house, a few days before Christmas, to help her wrap the pieces of cake. Each year we would wrap the cake differently.”
Some families, like Amaani’s, begin their celebrations on Christmas Eve, with a family dinner at home or midnight mass, while others spend Christmas Eve getting ready for the big day. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 situation in the country, many were restricted to their homes, unable to visit friends and relatives for Christmas or attend church services last year. Instead, families celebrated the special day within their homes and watched a live or pre-recorded midnight mass Christmas service on TV, YouTube or Zoom.
Since many Sri Lankans have relatives and friends abroad, visiting these family members and friends or hosting them at Christmas parties, lunches or dinners, when they visit the country for the festive season has also been something to look forward to. But, many Sri Lankans could not make it back home last year as flights were restricted, and some did not want to risk travelling overseas.
Like with any other religious or cultural festival in the country, lighting crackers, sparklers, Catherine wheels and skyrockets is a big way Sri Lankans celebrate this special day. The loud bursting and whistling noises of crackers and sky rockets, ushers in the dawn of Christmas day at midnight on 24 December.
“I remember my grandfather gifting sparklers, crackers and Catherine wheels to me, my younger brothers and cousins as Christmas gifts, when we were younger, and lighting them was a huge part of our family Christmas celebration,” Tabitha Abraham, a law student from Wattala, fondly told Roar.
Christmas in Sri Lanka is heralded with carol services and Christmas concerts organised by schools, churches and private choirs. For years, many Catholic and Christian churches and schools held carol services in the weeks before Christmas. Students, teachers, past students, clergy and parents were involved in the planning of these carol services.
Christmas concerts also date far back. Some of Colombo’s favourites, such as “The Merry Ann Singers Founder Mary Anne David”, and Soul Sounds Academy Founder and Music Director Soundarie David Rodrigo, always put on a show during the season. Sadly, COVID-19 has brought many of these shows and services to a halt, with others being held under strict restrictions this year.
Ms. Rodrigo’s “Moods of Christmas”, featuring Colombo’s premier all-female vocal ensemble Soul Sounds, went ahead on 21 December at Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo 3. Her Soul Sounds Academy also organised the Virtual Christmas Music Festival on 11 December. Local and international singers, musicians and choirs showcased their talents under eleven different categories.
This year, many leading Christian and Catholic schools in Colombo such as Bishop’s College, Methodist, St. Benedict’s College and St. Peters College decided to showcase virtual carol services that were either live streamed or pre-recorded and shared on YouTube and social media such as Facebook.
School choirs from S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, Bishop’s College, Ladies’ College, Hillwood College, Mowbray College, Trinity College, St. John’s College Jaffna and Chundikuli Girls’ College also came together this year for “Voices of Unity,” a special carol service presented by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, which was telecast on 20 December on MTV.
Carolling takes place at a few popular spots within Colombo. The Old Joes Choir, which also held back from organising a Christmas concert this year, sang carols at One Galle Face on 30 November and at the Gallery Café in Colombo 3 on 19 December. Outside of Colombo, too, carolling takes place–mainly organised by Catholic churches. Groups of children, youth or adults can be seen and heard, while walking around their respective neighbourhoods in the days running up to Christmas.
Christmas Decorations and More
Of course, Christmas is not complete without Christmas trees, decorations, nativity scenes and candles and other festive paraphernalia. Pettah is one of the most famous places for Christmas shopping, and street shops, both big and small, can be seen loaded with plastic Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, baubles in many colours, and lots of tinsel. In spite of pandemic-related restrictions and fears, the streets of Pettah this year were crowded with Christmas shoppers buying Christmas trees, coloured lights and decorations.
Instagram and Facebook too have been flooded with photos of handmade Christmas decorations, cards, candles and other seasonal crafts and decorations, as many hobbyists have taken up the making and selling of these creations as part-time businesses.
Decor maker Rushi Perera, who runs Simply Decor online through social media, encourages people to shop more from small businesses during the holiday season. A few of her creations are but not limited to table decor, stockings and Christmas tree ornaments. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on imports and the increase in the prices of many of the raw materials she uses, she was forced to increase the prices of her creations. Nevertheless, Rushi was optimistic as there has not been a drop in orders during this festive season.
Another decor maker, Tishani de Mel, said she focused more on making Christmas cards this year, and her speciality is “pop-up cards” with 3D artwork. She also makes Christmas tree ornaments and tried her hand at making advent calendars this year too. Most of her creations are made using discarded materials, in order to reduce waste and focus on the concepts of reusing and recycling waste. Her business too, is run online through Instagram and Facebook
Arpico outlets across the island also bring out loads of Christmas decorations during the season, and street vendors outside of Colombo, put up tables laden with wooden mangers and nativity sets, boxes and packets of sparklers, crackers and sky rockets, Christmas decorations and more, while people from the hill country bring down chopped branches of cyprus, pine or casuarina for people to use as Christmas trees or decorate their homes with.
The gathering of friends and families to celebrate a religious and cultural festival and holiday, with food, drinks, decorations, music and firecrackers is something quite uniquely Sri Lankan, and Christmas is one such occasion where this all takes place. In spite of the ongoing pandemic and the ongoing economic issues in the country, we hope that many people will be able to enjoy the festive season this year, while staying safe and keeping COVID-19 precautions in mind.