In Sri Lanka, December has always been a popular festive season. It’s harvest time. After the first conversions to Catholicism in the 16th century the month was renamed “Nattal rnase,” which literally means “Christmas month.” Till today, it remains a mixture of a harvest festival and Christian traditions.
Sri Lanka today is a predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist state. But since ages past, the land of the Sinhalese has attracted and brought together a varied mixture of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims whose descendants today comprise over 30% of the country’s total population. Their present mixed generations are a bold blend of the diversity and richness of their cultures, traditions, and religious beliefs.
A rice culture
Apart from Muslim traders and communities of Tamil marine fishermen who settled along the coastal belt, the native Sinhalese (whose language is Sinhala) have given great importance to irrigation, rice farming, and community-based agriculture since very ancient times. Sri Lanka was known as “the Granary of the East.” Even the twelve months were aptly named to capture and reflect not merely the essence of a season’s idealistic charm but to identify each month distinctly and differently from the other. December, for example, in the Sinhala lunar calendar was named “Unduwap.” In later years, with Christian conversions following the arrival of the Portuguese (1505), the twelfth month became popularly christened by the Sinhalese as “Nattal rnase,” literally the month of Christmas.
“Nattal” in Sri Lanka ushers in a festive season, traditionally celebrated throughout the island. People look forward to this year-end festival. Christians use the season to observe and spread the wonderful message of Christmas. They share it with their poorest neighbours and spread the message of goodwill and peace among all. For children, it means the end of school, the completion of final exams and the accompanying rewards for those who promoted to a higher class the coming year. Myriads of junior choristers or child actors, trained by their teachers, will have performed in school year-end concerts, centred on the significance of Christmas. There is even greater excitement and enthusiasm among elder churchgoers and youth groups at village parish communities.
In the city, choral groups, belonging to diverse creeds and denominations, serving either the private or the public sector, begin to rehearse their international medley of popular Christmas carols from about the beginning of December. Theatrical pageants and choral concerts are held at college halls, auditoriums, or in open-air esplanades in church compounds, for about a fortnight before Christmas Day. Streets and shops overflow with people buying beverages, cakes, clothing, gifts, shoes, electronic gadgets, and toys.
At country bazaars and village fairs, vendors from neighbouring districts hurriedly gather at makeshift stalls to hawk a wide range of goods, especially farmer families who have just reaped and sold their extra stocks. Merchandise is fancifully displayed to entice and cater to the fascination of young village girls and children drawn from the rural interior. Products on sale include colourful anklets, bangles, bracelets, brooches, clothing, fabrics, sarees, shawls, carpets, mats, and home-made delicacies such as marmalades, pickles, savouries, sweetmeats, to household items of aluminium, pottery, furniture, and even delicately handcrafted jewellery with precious stones.
To glorify nature
The festive cheer accompanying “Nattal” prevails until New Year, thus penetrating the inner countryside, awakening a permeating sense of joy and goodwill among peace-loving people of all ages and social status. Even the mid-noon breeze which is usually warm, at this time of the year softens to become caressing and refreshing. Flowers of diverse hues, style, and fragrance deck the surrounding alleys, boulevards, game parks, and treetops with grace as though to match up with that of the unending clusters of manel, nelum and olu lying serenely upon ponds and lakes.
All this helps to enhance and enrich the natural beauty of the undulating tropical vegetation that extends from the coast to the hilly elevations occupied by coconut, rubber, and luscious tea plantations. These are mainly located in the Central Province and they made Ceylon Tea world famous.
Out in the open expanse of rice paddies, men and women farmers chant verses to invoke the gods while glorifying nature’s rewards. Others seated on mini stools in competitive teams of five or seven join to play popular raban-pada (a traditional rendition of throbbing, rhythmic, prose, played together on a circular hollow drum held above the floor by four short legs). Such poetic prose is created by the stylistic and coordinated use of the players’ fingers and palms beating rhythmically together upon the hollow drum. Finally, preparing for the festive season and decorating the Christmas tree in one’s home are things children look forward to with immense excitement and anticipation. The same atmosphere prevails around the home-made crib which children still take delight in preparing for the Infant Jesus to be born precisely at midnight on Christmas Day. (A.V.A.)