Deepika Gunasekera, who runs a public relations agency in Colombo, is a Buddhist. In fact, 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist. But she makes it a point to celebrate Christmas every year for the sake of her two teenage boys. They put up a tree in their living room and decorate it just like the ones they have seen in the display windows of exclusive downtown shops.
There are always some rituals on her ‘To Do’ list during this time, including buying gifts for the children, enjoying a Christmas dinner with a Christian friend, and sending out greeting cards and wishes for the New Year.
For others, like Pushpakanthi Gamage, a retired librarian, Christmas is not just for pleasure, but a time to give and receive. Gamage, too, is a Buddhist but believes Christmas is about sharing with both the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
It is important to get the mood right, says Anusha Atukorale, another devout Buddhist. “Everyone certainly has a great time during this period, but do Sri Lankans capture the real spirit and meaning of Christmas or do we get a little too carried away with all the glitter and the show?” she asks. Like Gamage, she believes Christmas is all about people helping one another and being a little more self-sacrificing and selfless.
It is in that spirit that many institutions, from five star hotels to large businesses, reach out to the marginalised. Kaushalya Thuduhena, a restaurant hostess working for the Galle Face Hotel, runs us through the hotel’s promotional activities this Christmas,
“On Christmas Eve, we have the Blind Choir singing in the lobby. Everybody enjoys their music,” she reveals. The Colombo Hilton too has big charity plans for the season. Gigi de Silva, Marketing Communications’ Manager at the hotel, reels off their plans.
But how do the Buddhist clergy look at a religious tradition that is different from theirs? Sharing his thoughts on the season, Buddhist priest, the Venerable Premalankara Thero, commented that his “dharma” advocates respect for all faiths.
Thero pointed out that the Buddha himself discussed issues at other religious fora. Jesus Christ helped the poor and the needy wherever they were and therefore came to be seen as godly.
“In many ways, Christians are only expressing their gratitude to Christ during Christmas time,” adds Thero.
Another Buddhist priest, the Venerable Napanapemasiri Nayake Thera, head of the Hoorikaduwa Vidyasagara Temple in Menikhinna in the central hills of Sri Lanka, worries about Buddhist principles not being fully followed in Sri Lanka, otherwise it would have been a ‘dharmadveepa’, or holy land. He would like Sri Lankans to follow the best in both their own religious tradition and that of others.
Newly married office employee Geethika Rajapakse, a Buddhist herself, reflects on these words and adds, “I believe that all religions preach what is good. Nature is flowering at this time of the year and people celebrate because the year is coming to a close. Buddhists are familiar with this idea, because this celebration is like the New Year for Buddhists,” she says.
Generally speaking then, despite the fact that Christians account for only six per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, it is a season both of fun and games as well as understanding the joy of giving. It is also a season that knows no religious divide.
Ask S. Mohammed and he will tell you that he is always put in charge of the office Christmas party and D. Ganesharatnam, a practising Hindu, hopes that the season will bring “peace and prosperity to all, especially the poor.”
But the times are by no means easy. The recent floods in Sri Lanka have rendered the lives of hundreds less secure and the high cost of living is hitting those without fixed salaries the hardest. Yet, for a while at least, dark thoughts and pessimism are set aside, and everybody enjoys the spirit of the festive season.