10th December 2022
Rt. Rev. Keerthisiri Fernando

Christmas 🎄 in Sri Lanka

During Christmas, giving gifts, putting up Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and lighting of candles have been very prominent. Perhaps these traditions have become noticeable with the natural integration of these customs with the culture of Sri Lanka enriched by various religions

In Sri Lanka, Christmas is called Nat-tal (most probably derived from the world Nattal). This word has come from the Portuguese who ruled the coastal areas of this island from 1505 to 1658 CE. This introduction of Christmas was enriched by the Dutch and the British who occupied this land from 1658 to 1796 and 1796 to 1948 respectively.

Today Christianity is known to the people of this land mainly through the celebration of Christmas. Just as in many other countries, in Sri Lanka, Christmas is commercialized, with Santa Claus or Father Christmas as the central figure.

However, in Sri Lanka, Christmas is a time of joy for the entire island. In the north and south of Colombo where there are Christian communities of fishing and carpentry respectively, Christmas is celebrated on a grand scale. All the urban Christians have subcultures and in those areas Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others who belong to various cultures and ethnicities and who also have created subcultures join in the celebration of Christmas with Christians.

During Christmas, giving gifts, putting up Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols and lighting candles have been very prominent. Perhaps these traditions have become noticeable with the natural integration of these customs with the culture of Sri Lanka enriched by various religions. Perhaps unconsciously, giving gifts has become meaningful in the context of "merit making" which is very prominent in the popular culture pregnant with Buddhist and Hindu values.

In an environment where trees are respected and venerated, the Christmas tree has become meaningful by representing the vitality of Christmas.

This is enhanced with the lighting of candles, making it a festival of light along with the Hindu festival of Deepavali (which literally means a row of lights) and the Buddhist celebration of Vesak (celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of The Buddha). In a surrounding of ritualistic elements such as the chanting of Ghatha in Buddhism and the singing of Bhajans in Hinduism, Christmas carols have become very popular and meaningful in Sri Lanka. In predominantly Christian areas and in other urban regions there is an increasing trend for people of other faiths to be involved in singing Christmas carols.

This shows that beneath the popular and commercialized culture of Christmas or Nattal this festival of light and life has been rooted in Sri Lanka by going through a process of contextualization. Therefore, in the post-civil war background of Sri Lanka, it is the responsibility of the followers of Christ to enhance this process to make this festival an effective celebration of life-affirming and light-generating celebration to incarnate the Word in Sri Lanka.