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Christmas in Sri Lanka in the days gone by

By L V Cabral 

(Reproduced from the Daily News of December 29, 2001)

Christmas, the humble birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Judah is the most solemn and supreme festival for Christians. Christmas diametrically divided the history of the world into the two distinct eras, BC - before Christ and AD - Anno Domini. Years after the birth of Jesus; the Holy Bible was also divided into two, the old Testament and the new Testament, human society from conservative, traditional into enlightened and sagacious. 

Patently, Christmas had been celebrated in Sri Lanka from ancient Anuradhapura period. 

The national chronicle says that King Pandukabhaya, the founder of Anuradhapura, after his coronation had laid out the plan for the new capital city, allocating premises for building a chapel for Kuban, the God of Wealth, another one for the sect called Yonas, yet others for various heretical sects and a monastery for wandering mendicant monks (The Mahavansa William Geiger) It points out the remarkable religious amity and harmony in the ancient period of Sri Lanka. 

The two crosses excavated in 1913 in Anuradhapura by the archaeologists, according to H W Codrington, the famous historian, are identical with the cross at sani Thomas Mount near Madras. The archaeological commissioner E R Arton had unearthed a rectangular stone column, on which was cut in sunk relief a cross of a florate type standing on a stepped pedestal" Besides, the decorative baptismal fount at the Vavuniya Museum shows that Christians had dwelled in Anuradhapura. The historians believe those Christians belonged to the Nestorian Greek Orthodox Church. It is assumed that "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of goodwill" was sung during Christmas mass first in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. 

Chapel in Colombo 

In 1505 Don Lawrence de Almeida coasted on to Colombo to repair his ship. To comply the Arab traders, de Almeida went and signed a treaty with the King of Kotte, King Veera Parakramabahu. In terms of the treaty, a factory was set up at Galbokka (Galle Buck) and adjoining it a chapel for the religious observances of the mariners. The chapel was dedicated to saint Lawrence, the patron, Saint of the Captain. It is said that there had been an itinerant priest to administer the sacraments to the soldiers and sailors in the port of Colombo. (Ribeiro) 

Since the chapel was put up in November it can be assumed that the first Christmas mass would have been sung on December 25 1505 in Colombo with all solemnity. 

First Christmas mass in Sri Jayawardhanapura, Kotte King Buvanekabahu VII of Kotte (1521-1550) sent an Embassy to King John III of Portugal requesting him to accept and proclaim Prince Dharmapala his grandson, the rightful and lawful heir to the throne of Lanka after his death. 

Further, the king requested the King of Portugal to send a few missionaries to preach Christianity in the Kotte Kingdom (Paulo da Trinadade) 

In response to the King's appeal a team of Franciscan missionaries, headed by friar Joao de Villa Conde was sent to Kotte towards the end of 1543 AD (F.F. Lopes) On their arrival, they were given an enthusiastic welcome by the King and put up a chapel for their religious observances. The new chapel was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. The missionaries commenced preaching the Gospel, the teaching of Christ from Kotte and it spread far and wide, especially in the Maritime Provinces. 

On December 25 the Christmas festival mass, in commemoration of the birth of Christ was first celebrated at Etul Kotte in the new chapel next to the King's palace with all the proper solemnities, graced by the presence of the members of the Royal family. 


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Last Updated Date: September 25, 2003 .