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The Brooder

Christmas in Sri Lanka 1983.


The Telegraph (c) 2023.







‘There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time,’ sang a well-meaning but inaccurate pop song of the time. Had it been sung about Sri Lanka it would have been true. Despite our mountains being snowflake deficient and despite having suffered violence that would lead to a 30-year war, in 1983 we did know that  it was Christmas time at all. What my childhood may have lacked in snowmen, sleighbells and turkeys, it made up for in era-specific Christmas songs.

 

We were a Buddhist household, so Sinhala and Tamil New Year was our get-dressed-up-and-eat too-much event. Achchi, my mother’s mother, was a Christian and introduced us to her illustrated bible and to Sri Lankan yuletide delights like Dutch Breudher, something between a fruit cake and a circular breadloaf, enjoyed with brandy and dollops of butter, though not by me. She also had a box of Christmas cassettes, which included two ubiquitous albums, heard in middle class homes, shopping malls and radio stations across Sri Lanka. Jim Reeves’ 12 songs of Christmas and Christmas with Boney M.

 

Thanks to the patronage of Radio Ceylon DJs, Jim Reeves was bigger than Elvis and smoother than Sinatra in 1960s Ceylon. Boney M and Abba were the only tapes to survive the island’s 1970s austerities and import restrictions. When the music teacher at Tiny Tots International asked us to learn these songs for the Christmas concert, I already knew them by heart.

 

My Grandmother buttered the breudher and played Blue Christmas and White Christmas, listened to Silver Bells and Jingle Bells and decked our halls with the tinsel and plastic approximations of holly. I asked Achchi what green trees, snow, bells, sleighs and turkeys had to do with the birth of baby Jesus in a desert. She gave me her trademark sigh and eyeroll.

 

My mother was the youngest of her seven children and I was the 17th of her 19 grandchildren. Achchi had run short of patience for annoying grandchildren questions and would shut me up with music. It did work with Boney M’s When A Child Is Born, thanks to that glorious cadence in the 3rd line.

 

My school had been closed for months after the 83 riots and when it re-opened in October, there were empty seats. The smiley Tamil boy who knew every answer, the moody Indian girl obsessed with the cartoon She-ra, and the chubby middle eastern kid who was caught stealing erasers, had all left the country. That is all we were told.

 

While rehearsing our Jim Reeves and Boney M, the pretty girl from the milk powder commercial boasted that five houses had been burned in her Wellawatte neighbourhood. My friend Akram then proclaimed that Tigers had driven down his road last night. I knew he was lying but the others looked impressed. The two older girls in our troupe pitched in with stories of hiding neighbours and burning bodies and I wasn’t sure what to believe.

 

My July 1983 was spent safely indoors at my Grandma’s, playing endless games of Monopoly with my older cousins, all marooned in Colombo while the city shuddered and burned. The experience taught me everything I needed to know about bullying, capitalism and living inside a Colombo bubble. It was during one of these games, that my cousin told me the terrible truth about Christmas. The reason why Santa’s handwriting on last year’s presents closely resembled my mother’s.

 

I was eight in 1983, young enough to believe in magic, but old enough to be bothered by the look the girls gave Akram. I did not have a 1983 atrocity to offer, so I told them the most shocking thing I’d ever heard. I told them the truth about Santa. And everyone refused to believe me.

 

Achchi had ordered the breudher, the yulelog and the Christmas cake early that year. She was playing with my brother whom she liked more than me because he was cute and hadn’t learned to speak. What does a bearded man in a red suit have to do with the birth of baby Jesus, I asked. She did her sigh and eyeroll, and called me a little pundit, which I took as a compliment, though it didn’t appear to have been meant as one.

 

The concert, of course, never happened. After weeks of rehearsals our numbers had to be scrapped because the costume and wig lady had suddenly migrated to Canada, as many seemed to be doing in our neighbourhood. Akram and I were supposed to lip sync on stage with three girls to five Lankan Christmas classics. To this day, I am unsure if they planned to dress me as Gentleman Jim or as Bobby Farrell of Boney M. I may not have seen atrocities in 1983, but I certainly dodged a bullet.

 

I finally plucked the courage to ask my mother about Santa. And as soon as the question left my lips, she heaved a sigh of relief. Great, now you know. You were getting too old for Santa anyway. In the background my grandma let out an uncharacteristic chuckle. Serves you right, you little pundit, she said. I told you not to ask too many questions. Now shut up and finish your breudher.

 

Of course I had other questions. What does a baby do with frankincense? Does Jesus support the Sinhalese or the Tamils? And why must we lie to children? But for once, I decided to stop brooding and to do as I was told.

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