Christmas in early Sri Lanka


It’s Christmas time once again - a season well known for the good cheer and universal festivity which pervades throughout the length and breadth of the country. Though the degree of Christmas festivity changes from place to place and according to one’s moans the seasonal cheer and love radiated during Christmas is something universal and perennial throughout the world. The threats of social upheaval and political turmoil and the problem of unemployment and under development in many countries cannot wipe out the ever enchanting cheer of Christmas that spreads throughout the entire world during this season. It is amidst an atmosphere such as this that Sri Lanka too celebrates Christmas today and there is no better time for us to think about the unique way in which Christmas came to be celebrated in Sri Lanka from the ancient times.

In Sri Lanka too, like in all other countries, Christmas is joyfully celebrated on December 25th each year and this celebration of the birth of Christ is believed to have been held in Sri Lanka from the time that the Portuguese set foot on our shores when by more accident Lorenco de Almeida, force landed in the Galle harbour and then at the Colombo harbour on 15th November, 1505. It is said that the Portuguese having landed in Colombo erected a small prayer house to thank the Lord who brought them safe from the perils of a rough sea and on December 25th that year Lorenco de Almeida and his men who landed in Sri Lanka celebrated Christmas for the first time in Sri Lanka.

In contrast to this belief ancient chronicles mention that there were Christians in Sri Lanka long before the arrival of the Portuguese. The Persian cross found in Anuradhapura in the 5th century A.D. proves that Christiana have been travelling, trading and living in Sri Lanka even during the early Anuradhapura, period. Senerath Paranavitarana, the renowned Professor of archaeology too has mentioned that there were Christians in

India and Sri Lanka from the very ancient times. Specially because neighbouring India had Christians from the very early times there is no doubt that they would have had a great impact on Sri Lanka specially because of the geographic proximity of these two countries and also because of trade and commerce that linked the two countries.

The Mahavamsa records that king Pandukabaya, after his coronation, planned the now capital of Anuradhapura and took care to allocate space for building various places of worship for different religious sects and in doing so set apart space for the building of a chapel for the Christians. This proves that there were more Christians in Sri Lanka even during those very early times. The two crosses excavated in the Anuradhapura area in 1913 are said to be identical with the cross at Madras an early Christian centre in India. The decorative baptisimal font at the Vavuniya museum too shows that Christian had lived in Anuradhapura during the very early times.

So there cannot be any doubt that Christmas was celebrated in Sri Lanka from the very early times dating back to even the Anuradhapura period. It can be surmised that the first official Christmas mass in Sri Lanka was held in Colombo on 25th December 1505, by the Portuguese. King Buvenekabahu VII who ruled in Kotte from 1521 to 1550 sent an emissary ambassador to Portugal requesting the king of Portugal to accept and proclaim Prince Dharmapala as the rightful heir to the throne. In addition the king had requested the king or Portugal to send some missionaries to preach the gospel of Christiania in the kingdom of Kotte. In response to this appeal the king of Portugal had sent a group of Franciscan missionaries to Kotte. Tradition has it that the Christmas mass was first celebrated on 25th December, 1505 in Kotte and that oven the royal family of Kotte participated in it.

It is mentioned that by the 6th century a group of Persian traders settled in Sri Lanka. They were essentially Christians, built a Christian church and even got down a Christian priest to officiate in their religious activities. The well known voyager Cosmos, who travelled extensively in the Indian ocean, mentions many interesting facts about the early Christians in Sri Lanka. Cosmos a Greek by race was a trader from Egypt and came to the east for the purpose of travel. Later he retired to the seclusion of a Christian monastery and spent much of his time to write books on a variety of subjects but specialised on scripture books. His book "Topographic Christiana", written in the first half of the 6th century gives us very valuables and interesting information regarding Sri Lanka which he, describes as "A great emporium of trade in the Indian Ocean". In his description he records the existence of a Christian church as well as a Christian community in Sri Lanka in the 6th century.

He states: "Even in Taprobane, an island in further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians with clergy and a body of believers". He further states that this church received the Perisian Christian traders who had settled in these shores and mentions that they had even a Christian priest. Referring to the church Cosmos says "The is island has also a church of Persian Christiana who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual." So there is every reason to believe that from those early times Christmas was celebrate in Sri Lanka. Not only Cosmos but even earlier Persian biographers who wrote long before him mentions the existences of this community of Christians who would. definitely have celebrated Christmas in a fitting manner.

H. W. Codrington, in his informative book "A Short History of Ceylon" writes; "The capital (Anuradhapura,) was of vast extent, but containing many parks, open spaces and monastic establishments. It possessed a quarter assigned to foreign merchants, in whose hands was most of the trade. About 580 A.D. we read of a Persian Christian colony. A Nestorian cross undoubtedly belonging to this community is to be seen in the Anuradhapura museum.

Traders from Egypt, subjects of the Roman Empire, visited the country." Though these Persian Christian traders were strangers to Sri Lanka there is no doubt that they celebrated Christmas, the most important event in the Christian calendar, for the first time in Sri Lanka in the early 6th century.

These facts suggest that Christmas celebrations were held in Sri Lanka from the distant past in the history of Sri Lanka, but the mystery remains when exactly the first Christmas celebration in Sri Lanka was held. However, Christmas has been celebrated in this country from time immemorial and there is no doubt that it will be celebrated appropriately in Sri Lanka in the future as well.

Andrew Scott

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