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."

FACT FILE

CHRISTMAS IN SRI LANKA

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).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick