Though Sri Lanka is a country with a Sinhalese Buddhist majority, Christmas is a nationwide public holiday, because 7,5 % of the population is Christian, most of them Roman Catholic.
Christian churches can be found all over the country. The Christian miniority among Tamils makes up a higher percentage than among Sinhalese. But regarding absolute numbers, most Christians in Sri Lanka speak Sinhala and send their children to Sinhalese schools. Unlike Muslims, Christians have no state-sponsored separate school system in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has twelve Roman Catholic dioceses, the largest one being the only archdiocese, Colombo. Most Christians live in the Western and North-Western Province, particularly in the “Christian belt” along the western coast to the north of Colombo. Negombo in Gampaha District, belonging to the archdiocese of Colombo, is a centre of Christian culture on the island. Municipalities with a Christian majority are Ja-Ela, Negombo, villages in the south of Puttalam District and Mannar. The district with the largest percentage of Christians is Mannar (west coast of the Northern Province), with 42% Christians.
Sri Lankan Christians start the Christmas season on 1st December by letting off fire crackers at dawn. On Christmas Day, you can visit a Christmas Mass in almost every town in Sri Lanka. There are also Midnight Mass services for New Year. If you want to study local Christmas traditions, Negombo is definitely the best place.
However, Christmas is a day of celebrations for almost all Sri Lankans. Streets are decorated and shopping centres and many hotels have Christmas Trees, similar to Western countries. Festive Christmas decors are very common even at small shops in non-Christian areas. Big companies will organize Christmas parties for their stuff. Christians also invite non-Christian friends to homes for Christmas parties. Even some Buddhist middle-class families decorate Christmas trees at home for their children.
In Sinhala., Santa Clause is called “Naththal Seeya”, meaning “(Christ)Birth Grandfather”. The Sri Lankan Christmas greeting for “Merry Christmas” is “Ubha nath thalak Vewa” in Sinhala or “Nathaal Vaalthuka” in Tamil, but everyone understands “Merry Christmas”, too. Roast turkeys with stuffing and fruit-laden steamed puddings arte typical Christmas meals in Sri Lanka.
It is likely that the very first Christmas celebrations in Sri Lanka were already held 1000 years before the arrival of the Portuguese, as there was a chapel of Christian merchants of Persian origin in the capital Anuradhapura, a Nestorian cross was engraved on a rock in Anuradhapura and another Nestorian cross was unerthed in Sigiriya. A baptismal pond was excavated near Vavuniya.
The first recorded Christmas celebration took place in 1689. The midnight mass was celebrated by Joseph Vaz in secret in a Catholic house on the Jaffna peninsula. Joseph Vaz, recognized as Blessed by the Church of Rome, was a Roman Catholic missionary in Sri Lanka in times of suppressions of this faith due to the Dutch rule, which was in favour of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk. The Dutch Governor Adrian Van Reede ordered to raid the premises, where the Roman-Catholic Christmas celebration took place, Josepf Vaz remained unharmed when participants were assaulted. Thus, ironically the first reported Christmas celebration became another example of (Calvinist) Christian intolerance and violence in Sri Lanka.
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