In most families, traditions only come to life around the holidays. In my family, the only holiday that has gained any particular tradition over the years has been, ironically, Christmas. As a diasporic family, we never seem to be around each other for any of the other Eids, but have managed to meet up every year around Christmas, with only the occasional exception. Continuing to adapt with the times, our childhood Christmas traditions evolved from Christmas Eve to a Christmas lunch, and from pizza and ice cream (there was other food there, but that’s what we most enjoyed as children) to turkey and wine. The elements that remained are what I would consider the fun-fillers – decorating the tree with the kids, singing a Christmas carol or two (off key, of course), some group games, and presents (you are never too young or too old to get excited about unwrapping a present) – though, granted, these didn’t always take place with my family… and not always in the same country. Nonetheless, tradition reigned, and defined the holiday for me.
So you can understand that nobody batted an eyelid when I was in mid-air, traveling around Eid Al Adha, and nobody was really concerned with my plans for New Year’s eve. Staying in Jaffna for Christmas, however, had somehow set off a chain of events that led to nobody flying home from Christmas, and altering the traditional Christmas lunch altogether. Though I did feel some guilt at having been indirectly behind this, I must confess that I was also a little consoled by the fact that I would not be missing one of OUR Christmases. It was not my first choice to be here for Christmas, but since I was, and since there would not be anything of our usual Christmas taking place, I set out to try to make it as much fun as I could. For me, at least.
I was happy to find that Jaffna and its population of Christians were preparing for a good time (the Hindus and Muslims hardly seemed to notice). My first sign was not the few very plastic looking Christmas trees, the blindingly gauche ornaments, or the frantically blinking lights, but the blow-up Santa dolls that appeared out of every other shop window. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a blow-up Santa doll (at least not one that wasn’t a marketing gimmick, towering over pedestrians) and thought how appropriate the choice was for this rainy season. I wasn’t too far off as they were sold out before I had the chance to lay my hands on one. In the end, I restrained myself from the slippery slope that was the strange variety of Christmas decorations, and stuck to my simple favourite: Christmas lights, which adorned the stretch of windows in my little flat (and have made for a cheery nightlight!).
Next task was to try to pull a Christmas celebration together. To make sure that something did happen on Christmas, I had announced early on that any celebration would take place in my house. The preference among the internationals who were also hanging around for Christmas (and whom I lovingly referred to as ‘the Leftovers’) was to celebrate the eve. And so it was… It took me a minute to realize that Dec 24 was a working day and that I wouldn’t be able to prepare much, and another minute to place an order with a local caterer I had found. By the third minute I was smiling at the thought that this is exactly what I would have done had I been in Beirut, and realized that in this isolated peninsula in the north of the island that is Sri Lanka, I had found ways for Jaffna to meet my own habits!
I was a little concerned as to what would keep two Dutch people, one Tanzanian, one Indian, one Indonesian, one Italian, one German and one Turk-German sufficiently entertained all the way till midnight, but the celebration was grand fun. One of the lowlights was realizing that nobody else had heard (or could sing along to) the 12 Days of Christmas, one of the highlights was finding that we could sing Silent Night in our native languages (I resorted to English), and did so in a rather decent (and touching) choral attempt. There were, thankfully, other highlights – the makeshift presents, the youtube stroll for all sorts of Christmas songs – I no longer recall all of them, but I do know that midnight rolled in without us noticing. We were left with one last part to our Jaffna Christmas experience: midnight mass in Tamil.
We did not arrive in time to see the children carrying in baby Jesus into the manger that dominated the front half of the huge church, and we sadly missed the singing as well. When we arrived, the rather large congregation was just settling in for the sermon, seated in the pews, on the ground and on the stairs in burst of brightly-coloured new clothes, children parents and grandparents were momentarily distracted by us before relegating their full attention to the bishop at the altar. It was sweet, and humbling, and the fact that I could not understand the language meant that I could let my mind wander to what the bishop might be saying, which, to be honest, made it a much more interesting sermon than any other I have attended.
His line of thought lasted much longer than mine, so we soon gave in to our lingual ignorance, hugged each other goodnight, and headed home.
It was a lovely night…