The Christmas odyssey | Sunday Observer

The Christmas odyssey

The word Christmas means the Mass of Christ. The word nativity (birth) seems to have appeared in the year 1038 AD. This birth is of non other than Jesus Christ himself, who was born on Christmas day. It was Pope Julius I (337-352) who officially declared that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, as is done today. Since the birth of Christ, the spirit of Christmas in celebration has been held for more than 2000 years and still continues.

The infant church did not celebrate the feast of Christmas during the first three centuries. Two reasons were attributed to this non celebration. In Rome, birthday celebrations other than that of Caesar were disallowed. The second reason was that as the second coming of Jesus was expected there was no reason to celebrate the first coming of Jesus. Pope Liberious found that Christians were celebrating the pagan festival called ‘Saturnalia’ an event celebrating the sun God. Pope Liberious replaced ‘Saturnali’ with the birth of Christ calling Jesus ‘The Sun of righteousness’ and Christmas came to be celebrated first in Rome and later elsewhere.

There have been close diplomatic and trade connections between Rome and Sri Lanka and this has been proved by the recent findings of over one hundred ancient Roman coins in Boralessa.

Ancient chronicles mention that there were Christians in Sri Lanka long before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. There is proof and reason to believe that from the early times Christmas was celebrated in Sri Lanka.

Christian communities

Not only biographer Cosmos but even earlier Persian biographers who wrote long before Cosmos mention the existence of this community of Christians who would have definitely celebrated Christmas in a proper manner. Beginning with Constantinople, Christmas was introduced to the Eastern Empire at least before 380 AD, as confirmed by the 39th oration of Gregory Nazianzus who preached in 381 AD on the festival of lights. At the same time in 386 AD Christmas began to be celebrated in Antioch, as proved by the sermon of St.John Chrysostom. The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD gave a lot of impetus to this celebration. With frequent communication between Persia and the South Indian region Christmas celebrations could have been introduced to Sri Lanka.

By the 6th century a group of Persian traders settled in Sri Lanka. They were of the Christian faith. They built a church and even had the counsel of a Christian priest to officiate in their religious programs. Cosmos the biographer in his descriptions records the existence of a Christian church and community in Sri Lanka in the 6th century. His book ‘Toppgraphia Christiana’ gives us valuable information regarding Christianity in Sri Lanka.

The feast of Christmas began to be celebrated in Rome prior to 336 AD. The Romans celebrated their Sun God’s birth on 25th December from the year 274 AD. There has always been a belief that St.Thomas visited Sri Lanka. It is conjectured that he preached on the hill near the Colombo harbour, presently called Ginthupitiya. But there is no historical date to prove this. Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopules, a greek writer says that St.Thomas came to Sri Lanka in 1328, the year of his death. In his monumental church history up to the year 610 in 18 books dedicated to Emperor Andronikos II he states that St.Thomas preached on the island of Taprobane to Brahamins.

There is ample evidence of Christian presence in Sri Lanka before the Portuguese invasion of the maritime provinces.

The referances of the Alexandrian merchant Cosmos called Indikopleustus the man who sailed to India in AD 550 to a church and a Christian community in Anuradhapura and of another Arab traveller Idroos proves this fact further.

Our Archeologist Dr. Senarath Paranavitana confirms the fact that there was a considerable Christian community in the island during the fifth and sixth centuries of the Anuradhapura period. Likewise there is plenty of evidence to prove that Christianity and the celebration of Christmas existed in Sri Lanka even before the Portuguese invasion to Sri Lanka in 1505.

Persian Christian colony

H.W. Coderington in his well researched analytical book ‘A short History of Ceylon’ writes; “The capital city Anuradhapura was large in extent but contained many parks, open spaces and monastic establishments.” The national chronical reveals that King Pandukabhaya the founder of Anuradhapura after his coronation had planned for a new capital city allocating premises for building religious places of worship. In around 500 AD we hear of a Persian Christian colony. At the Anuradhapura museum there is found a Nestorian Cross undoubtedly belonging to the Christian community. Hence the conviction is that Christmas was celebrated before the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka with the Catholic faith. Though the Persian Christian traders from Egypt were strangers to Sri Lanka there is no doubt that they celebrated Christmas.

Sri Lanka in 1505

The two crosses unearthed in 1913 in Anuradhapura by archaeologists are identical with the cross at St.Thomas’ Mount near Madras. 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.

The decorated Baptismal fount at the Vavuniya Museum shows that Christians had lived in Anuradhapura. Many historians believe those Christians belonged to the Nestorian Greek Orthodox church. Up to November 15 of 1505 Sri Lanka was free from foreign domination till the Portuguese came.

Accordingly King Manuel of Portugal appointed Francisco de Almeida as the first governor to rule the East. His arrival was soon followed by Lorenzo de Almeida the governor’s son. Due to a storm in the Indian ocean they landed in Colombo where they made a small prayer house to thank the Lord who brought them safe here.

This little Catholic prayer house was dedicated to St.Lawrence. Exactly 40 days later it was December 25th and Christmas day.

Lorenzo and his retinue celebrated Christmas for the first time in Sri Lanka in 1505 in that little prayer house dedicated to St.Lawrence. The Christmas mass was celebrated by Rev.Fr. Vincess. The first recorded date of celebrating Christmas on December 25 was in 336 AD during the first Roman Christian Emperor Constantine. Not much evidence can be found on the celebration of the nativity in the festivities of the eastern church. Irenaeus and Tertulian, early historians of the church have omitted the inclusion of the Nativity as a festival in their writings. But there is evidence of such from Egypt to the celebration of the nativity. It was about 200 AD coinciding with the reign of clement of Alexandria.

King Buvanekabahu VII of Kotte (1521-1550) requested the King of Portugal to send a few missionaries to preach Christianity in the Kotte Kingdom. In response to the King’s appeal a team of Franciscan missionaries headed by friar Joao de Villa Konde was sent to Kotte towards the end of 1543 AD. They were put up in a chapel for their religious observances. The newly built chapel was dedicated to St.Francis of Assisi. They commenced preaching the gospel from Kotte and it spread far and wide specially in the maritime provinces. During 1521-1550 on December 25, the Christmas festival mass was first celebrated at Etul Kotte in the new chapel next to the Kings palace with all the proper solemnities graced by the presence of the members of the royal family.

Christmas was recorded to have been celebrated by the Portuguese after their arrival. It is recorded that dramas depicting the birth of Christ and the lives of saints were enacted in Colombo and Galle on the occasion. The Dutch who conquered Ceylon after the Portuguese would have celebrated Christmas according to the Protestant tradition. More evident was the conspicuous celebration of Christmas introduced to Sri Lanka by the Oratorian missionaries from Goa India. With the revival of the Catholic faith under the bold missionary Joseph Vaz who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1678 a Christmas celebration with a new indigenous Christian culture was introduced. The pioneer of this culture revival of religion and its Christmas was Fr. Jacome Gansalvez a scholar priest. He arrived in Sri Lanka in 1705 and wrote a number of hymns and plays on the theme of Christmas. It was done naturally at that time with the lack of secularism and consumerism that we see dominant today.

The festival of Christmas would have been different and desirable in nature. Undoubtedly Jesus Christ would have had his due place in it.

An eventful journey

Since the birth of Christ, Christmas has been celebrated for 2017 years. From that first Christmas the good news has travelled on an eventful journey or odyssey with its frugal beginnings to todays commercialised Christmas, which has buried the true meaning of it.

Our ancestors celebrated Christmas blessing this land with the presence of missionaries celebrating its true message. Christmas reminds us of the glorious second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time. The proven fact is that Jesus Christ the anointed one came and by his death and resurrection restored our lives.

May this Christmas be a renewal of peace, prosperity and joy to all.