O little town of Negombo

A battle of light and darkness during Midnight Mass, a carpenter's son amid the adzes, and a hot toddy served by a tight-rope walker, Jasper Winn finds it hard to avoid Christmas even in Sri Lanka
MY VIEW on Christmas isn't exactly that of Scrooge. It is more like my feelings for the Olympics. It's too expensive, draining and hysterical to hold annually, but having it once every four years is a lot of fun. So that's what I do. But that still leaves me with the problem of finding non-Noel alternatives for three years out of four.

Muslim countries are good bets, as are parts of Africa. Remote rural retreats in depopulated areas of Europe can be Christmas-free, if somewhat lonely. And until Castro reinstated 25 December as a public holiday, Cuba offered everything a Christmas escapee could desire; sun-soaked beaches, alcohol, and plenty of dancing - a glorified office-party but with instant sunstroke for anyone dumb enough to dress up in red duffel coat, cotton-wool beard and Wellington boots.

A few years back I imagined that Sri Lanka would provide the same Christmas- free asylum. My friend Carla and I had recently completed a trip through India. There were a few days left over Christmas and we thought a Sri Lankan beach would be the perfect refuge.

On Christmas Eve, we left the capital on the top deck of a Routemaster bus. The destination still read: "22. Sloane Square-Putney Heath" though the bus was actually on the way from Colombo to Negombo, which boasted a beach, palm trees, and out-rigger canoes scudding across a lagoon.

Knowledge of Sri Lanka's demography - the population is 70 per cent Buddhist and 16 per cent Hindu - had lulled me into a false sense of security on the Christmas front. It hadn't occurred to me to ask where the country's 14 per cent Christian minority might practise their seasonal rituals. The answer turned out to be - yes, truly - Negombo.

"Welcome, Sir and Lady, to Little Rome!" the bus driver shouted as we climbed down into the dust of Lewis Street. There were several large churches in view, and in a palm-shaded garden a choir of small children practised O Little Town of Bethlehem.

The cheapest hotel - by definition our choice - was also the one that had displayed the greatest Blue Peter-esque ingenuity in fashioning decorations out of tropical foliage, strings of newspaper cut-outs, and sliced up plastic bottles. In the dusk a fine snow of mosquitoes sifted through the candle light.

That evening we strolled the lanes behind the beach. Stalls sold cheap bangers, thunder flashes and Roman candles. Gangs of small boys gathered around fizzing bombs, or lobbed Catherine wheels under the chairs of dozing grandparents. As we walked we found ourselves part of a growing throng, in their Sunday best. Small girls were dressed like Sugar Plum fairies in white lace confirmation dresses. Those small boys still under parental control had pressed shorts and oil-slicked hair.

In the silence between the retorts and explosions, small noises were amplified. The hundreds of feet shuffling through the dry crust of sand sounded as if they were breaking a hard frost. Handshakes and smiles drew us along through the door of a towering beach-side church. We were in the town's fishing quarter, and a growing congregation was gathering for Midnight Mass. The pews were already full, and women had plumped down in the aisles, their children scattered around them, while rough fishermen spilt out of the side doors into the Voodoo gloom of the graveyard.

Three stylish women adopted us. Their costumes married Edwardian propriety to disco glitz. Picture hats dipped across their brows, artful make- up gave them the look of Madonnas, and their dresses were teasing fantasies plumed with artificial feathers. A pew was cleared for us.

If we were seated with the angels, it was only appropriate that the mass should become a symbolic battle between light and dark. A thumping generator in the background powered an electric organ that swirled Baroque accompaniment to the choristers singing their hearts out in front of the altar. Powerful lights made their surplices glow like neon, and the priest seemed borne aloft on a cloud of pure radiance.

But then there was a distant hiccup. The generator's tempo slowed to a halt. The lights faded until only a blue luminescence from the graveyard lit the church. The organ, too, died to nothing, and the pure voices faltered, drowned out by the crackle and explosion of fireworks and a battering of drums on the beach. A child cried.

Then there was a defiant churning from the generator, the lights leapt back, and the organ shrieked to a climax carrying the singing voices with it. The drums and the blue glow retreated. But already the generator's throb faltered, and the lights began to fade....

On 25 December, after a late, and simple breakfast, we walked along the beach and into the palm groves. A family of Tamil shipwrights were adzing balks of timber into banana-shaped fishing rafts. I spotted a small child laid on a sheet amidst a jumble of carpentry tools and thought of Christmas. Shaking off the treacherous thought I led Carla deeper into the palm trees. Above us a "toddy tapper" trotted a zigzag course on tight ropes crossing from one tree's crown to the next over a half kilometre route. At each tree he decanted the sap collected from a dripping gash into a gourd.

As he shinned down the final tree, he stopped to lay his head against its trunk and incant thanks to the spirit within for sharing its bounty. He called me over and passed me a small bottle of toddy - the fermented and alcoholic sap - to taste. "This toddy is very good hot," he said, as I mopped perspiration from my brow, "very good for fever, very good for colds". He paused, "yes, and best thing, this toddy is very good for drinking."

Having played a full hand of Midnight Mass, a carpenter's son and a draught of hot toddy, Christmas seemed to be winning. But it was romance and not the festive season that prompted us to pile up our rupees and budget a steak-and-wine dinner at a modest beach-side restaurant that night. We were the only customers and we had barely sat down and begun to apportion our micro-economy to each stage of the meal, when a group of carol singers arrived.

Breathless children, hastily dressed as angels, clustered around us, bickered briefly, then launched into Good King Wenceslas. Charmed we handed over our pudding money. The restaurant dog harried them out of the door.

Fifteen minutes later more carollers poured in. They were teenagers dressed as multiples of the Three Kings, and they sang Ding Dong Merrily on High, while one strummed a guitar. With good grace we handed over our wine money. We were halfway through the meal and sharing a bottle of beer when the next group arrived; a cabal of venerable, blind oldsters in matching red shirts.

They tapped their white sticks across the sand-covered, wooden floor of the veranda, and encircled our table. Some held hands, lightly, by the fingers, as if for reassurance. There was a collective intake of breath and then a honeyed harmony, a pure descant through O Come All Ye Faithful. Enraptured, Carla and I held hands too, and looking out over the Indian Ocean, listened.

I placed our breakfast money in the small bag they held out, thanking them and making small talk. Carla mentioned that she was Dutch. Huddling close they whispered amongst themselves briefly, and there was a snatch of humming. Then opening into a line again they wove a pure soprano, a quartet of tenors and rolling bass through Stille Nacht. There were tears in our eyes when they had finished. "Here," I told Carla, "goes the taxi money for the airport."

The next morning, breakfastless, we slogged on foot to find a bus to the airport. As we stood by the bus stop, a passing snack vendor on a bicycle gestured at his glass case full of food. I shook my head, "sorry, no money". He stopped and picked out two pickled fish rolls. "Here! Presents! Time of giving. It's Christmas."



Getting there

Air Lanka (tel: 0171-930 4688) the international carrier, offers the only direct flight to Sri Lanka. A return flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka's only international airport costs pounds 426 plus pounds 20 tax. An indirect flight to Sri Lanka (via Dubai) with Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-547 3322), flying with Emirates is pounds 410 plus pounds 20 tax.

Further information

The Sri Lankan Tourist Board, 22 Regent St, London, W1 4QD (tel: 0171-930 2627).