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Christmas in the good old days

Christmas in the good old days

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

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

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

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.”

By Noel Crusz


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