In honor of the season, I am reposting an article I recently received from a relative in Sri Lanka. It was written by an expat Sri Lankan, now living in Austrailia, 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 tar edgings all round the rooms and the chairs were re-cushioned. The travelling tailor came home, measured the rooms, and made the curtains on our old 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 when no one was looking. 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 to Pettah’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 peddlars who plied their trade on bicycles. Some of the Chinamen carried their bundles on their back, with a heavy stick for balance. Main Street in 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 and ice 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 a treat 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 they sang 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 Joseph clinging to its tail, and the audience, including Mary in ripples of laughter.
As midnight came, there were a never-ending sound of fireworks and sky 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 the backdrop. 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.”
If you live in A Sri Lankan household, chances are someone is making Christmas Pudding in preparation for the holidays. Definitely a tradition passed on by the British, this is one of the richest, moistest desserts on the planet, and certainly not to be confused with dried out old fruit cake. As a child, I used to love how it was doused with brandy and brought flaming to the table to eat with either brandy sauce or custard.
2 cups (500 ml) brown raisins
2 cups (500 ml) white raisins
1 cup (250 ml) currants
1 cup (250 ml) candied fruit mix, finely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) candied cherries, finely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) unsalted cashews, chopped
1 apple, grated
1 carrot, grated
1 tbsp. lemon peel, finely grated
1 tbsp. orange peel, finely grated
juice of 1 lemon
juice of 1 orange
1 tsp. ground cardamom, roasted
1 tsp. ground cloves, roasted
1 tsp. nutmeg, grated
1 cup (250 ml) sherry
1 cup (250 ml) brandy
1 cup (250 ml) butter
1 cup (250 ml) brown sugar
4 cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 cups (500 ml) flour
1.) In a deep bowl, combine the fruit, nuts, peel, juices, spices, sherry and brandy. Cover tightly and leave overnight.
2.) On the following day, cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs. Fold into fruit mixture.
3.) Fold in breadcrumbs and flour alternately.
4.) Fill stainless steel pudding bowls with mixture (2 inches from top) and cover each with 2 layers of parchment paper. Tie string around bowls so they are watertight. Cover with tin foil to further seal.
5.) Place bowls in saucepans filled with hot water up to about 1/4 of the height of each bowl.
6.) Steam puddings for 4 hours making sure that there is always enough water in the pans to cook them but not boil over.
7.) Remove from heat and cool.
8.) Remove original paper and cover with fresh parchment. Seal with foil and leave in a cool place.
9.) On Christmas day, steam pudding for a further 2 hours and serve with custard or brandy sauce.