ROUNDABOUT – By Prins James Alagaratnam
As we come to the end of another year, all of humanity irrespective of Race or Religion, wind down to a time of peace. Many factors contribute to this calm. In most parts of the world the the month of December is cooler than others, Businesses wind down their financial year and hand out employee rewards. December is the month that billions of Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago. In the midst of World War I, opposing troops in their trenches observed a ceasefire, sang Christmas carols, greeted one another on “No Mans Land”.
The Christmas Truce- A story of World War 1.- The war ended in 1918. A call to arms that was promised to last a few days, continued for months, then years. Soldiers sent to the front were promised that they would be home for Christmas. However, the war dragged on from 1914 to 1918, dragging, in Germany, France, Belgium, many European allies, and the U.S, and Canada. The Germans and allied forces were facing each other across the trenches. December 25th was a few days ahead and the “Big Brass” at head quarters were pushing for an onslaught. The homesick soldiers at the front had other ideas.
“Truce”-by Jim Murray narrates with first hand reports, how opposing soldiers dropped their enmity towards one another, lit Christmas trees in their trenches, sang the perennial “Stille Naght” and walked across their trenches to neutral territory, shook hands, exchanged gifts, and even engaged in an impromptu soccer game. The head offices kept sending messages not to fraternize with the enemy and keep up the shelling, but, for these few days the spirit of Christmas prevailed. An eyewitness account by Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled, “ On that crisp, clear morning British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives. But what actually happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914? Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”,
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words “Adeste Fideles”. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ¬– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
Christmas’s in Sri lanka; Pioneering film maker, Noel Crusz reminiscences, while on a sea voyage in Australia -“Christmas in the good old days in Ceylon”. What all of us, growing up in our motherland, experienced. “polishing of the floors and the chairs, making the treats, the frenzied shopping, and fireworks in December.
Deloraine Brohier, late, iconic first lady of The Dutch Burgher Union of Sri Lanka- in her article titled “Christmas in Jaffna..200 years ago”, recounts growing up in a large community of burghers in the Jaffna peninsula. House to house Carolling, and visiting their elders were some of the traditions she writes of. Sri Lanka has been a multi religious country since independence. All over the island each of its major religions festivities are accepted by all. Whether it be a Bhuddist, Hindu, Muslim or Cristian festival, everyone looks forward to it, even these days are public holidays. Irrespective of race or religion, the joyous feelings island wide can be seen in everyone, of any age.
Growing up in Bambalapitiya, Colombo, we too would muster up our friends from the Colombo south, Galle road areas. It was an evening of fun for most of us. We end up at St. Mary’s, Dehiwela, pick up more friends, move along to known neighbourhoods. Some homes, looked forward to having us carollers in their homes. They would open their doors, treat us cake, other delicacies and milk wine. The homes that douse their lights on hearing our approach, would be treated to a barrage of Dashing Crackers on their porch, curtesy of Santa- the late Norman Jinadasa. At one time Santa had to accompany an injured caroller to the General Hospital, to be cheerfully greeted by the pretty house officer. House to house carolling continued with our younger siblings and their contemporaries. They too were welcomed in many homes and, became so apt at collecting pocket money that they even hired a bodyguard, a gardener, after his day job, to accompany them. The bodyguard got an equal share of the collection.
Carols at Police Park, and traditional yuletide services conducted at respective churches, were equally exciting. Rattan weaving tradesman would be hired to redo all the rattan seats. The wooden furniture would get a new coat of varnish. The polishing of floors was another pre-Christmas ritual. We would look forward to accompanying one or both our parents, shopping for toys and clothes. Shopping in the Pettah and Fort, was where most of the premier shopping took place. There were the tram cars and trolley buses, plying between Fort and Pettah. On “Front Street” our favourite stop was “Musical Stores” with its owner, Mr.Lionel Jayesekera, always there to welcome us, and proudly display all the new toys. Other stores frequented would be C.V. Bhatt, Hunter & co., Siedles, and Seneviratene & sons. The owners of these establishments were always present and had a cordial relationship with their customers. Christmas shopping included, a visit to “Paivas” Tea Rooms, on Main Street and then onto all the fancy crackers, and fireworks from “Fireworks Palace”. The preparation of the Christmas cake was a family affair, quite enjoyable, where the younger ones waited their turn to clean the bowl. The heavy tray would be carried across to the closest bakery. Our’s was baked at the “Renown Bakery”. Like many in our neighbourhood, we would cross the Galle Road to drop off and later in the afternoon, collect their well baked cake. The bakery had their own tagging system that identified each tray. Traditions have been continued in our lands of adoption. We continue the traditional bakes and Christmas cakes, enjoy family and friends over in our homes, partake in the traditional Christmas sing a longs, ending merrily with “Silent Night” or “The 12 days of Christmas” and exchanging gifts and stories.
It s interesting to note, that if not for the church organ breaking down, the first rendition of the much loved carol, “Silent Night” would not have been hurriedly composed and sung, in a little chapel in Austria.200 hundred years ago.