Thoughts on Christmas Day and Its Significance from a Scholar Bhikkhu and a Burgher Migrant

I: from Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera*

XMAS TREEChristmas Day is the holiest day for all Christians, and Christians all over the world celebrate this Holy Day in pious solemnity and religious grandeur. The significance of Christmas is such that it is now generally considered a time that induces and encourages all to rise above petty divisions and bonds, for people to live in harmony and peace. But none of these features really highlights the true significance of Christmas. We have to give thought to find out what really is the true significance of Christmas. As a Buddhist I see Christmas Day as the day on which we have to ponder what exactly is humaneness.

To Christians Jesus, born on Christmas Day, is the Son of God. But I see him as a great noble human being. The service rendered by him for the good and well-being of human kind is immeasurable. Having been born among human beings, living and growing-up among them, he spent all his life to serve human beings.

If we consider his teachings from a rational perspective, we would see it not as a revelation but as an expression concerning the true state of affairs prevailing in society, expressions voicing the experience he gained from society.  He denounced injustice and inequality and always upheld and fought for justice and equality. His criticism aimed at oppressive acts done in the name of God and condoned by the prelates of the traditional Jewish ecclesiastical hierarchy clearly demonstrates his humanistic attitude.

The following quote from Mathew (23) is a good example for this; Jesus said:

“Woe to you, the teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside – but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

“You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” The whole life of Jesus Christ was dedicated to bringing about an ethically good society, where the people would find peace and happiness; to free the average people from oppression of the privileged class.

He said that poverty facilitates this meeting with God. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew: 5)

He said: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to entire the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew: 19)

With such bold expressions Jesus tried to drive the point that a life of poverty founded on morality, is better than a life of affluence acquired through corrupt practices and illegal means.

It is true that he had to pay with His life for been truthful and bold to speak up against evils and corruptions. Yet, through his noble life and conduct we see the glittering example of his incomparable humaneness.  Therefore, the true significance of Christmas Day should be considered as connoting the sublime nature of humaneness.

Christmas becomes beautiful not merely because of the attractive saleable items such as clothes that fill the shops; not because the roads are adorned with colourful electric bulbs that are lit along them. Churches do not become attractive on Christmas Day merely because of the Psalms sung in them.

Homes do not become pleasant merely because of the delicious food items prepared in them to celebrate Christmas. Christmas Day becomes beautiful when the mind is freed from anger and revengeful feelings; when people are able to go beyond petty divisions of caste, creed and race; when corruption and injustice are shattered and when morals, justice and equality reign.

With the end of terrorism that lasted almost for three decades Christians now celebrate Christmas throughout the island unhindered and with great pomp and solemnity.

The message of Christmas is peace. But it should go deeper than mere superficial peace. Christmas Day will be more meaningful if we emphasize the importance of transgressing petty differences and co-existing peacefully.  The most sublime and noble manner in which we could honour the great being born on this day is by turning ourselves into good human beings.


II: From Eardley Lieversz in Sydney **

It rained heavily on Christmas day [here in Sydney]. The weather was cool. This was one of the few times since leaving Sri Lanka that I felt Christmassy. Why? Christmas in Sri Lanka was very European. A mixture of Dutch food, English traditions and American music. But I rarely experience a Christmas atmosphere in Australia which is more European than Sri Lanka and very British in tradition.

One problem is the heat. I always celebrated Christmas in Kandy where the climate was cooler and the Christmas songs about snow seem less out of place. Usually, we attended midnight mass at a hilltop Catholic Church whose name and location escapes me. (St. Joseph’s, Dodanwala?) But I recall being driven through a tunnel cut through the rock where water fell down from both sides. After mass we usually had a meal at the house of relatives/friends, most of who were domiciled down Peradeniya Road.

Apart from the heat we didn’t’ have the traffic which is so typical of Oz, and presumably in the Sri Lanka of today. But ironically enough, there was a peace and sanctity at Christmas which owes a lot to Buddhism.

Sri Lanka is not secular society and people take religion seriously. The Buddhists are serious about their festivals and there are no secularists undermining the celebration of Buddhist festivals.

Wesak in Sri Lanka is not commercialised. It is not about exchanging presents but about creating beautiful pandals. It is about dressing in sombre white, attending temples and indulging in introspection. It is a quiet time where all activities are conducted in a tasteful manner.

Most importantly, Buddhist dominated governments extend the sanctity of religion to all religions. For instance, there are no sporting fixtures and any form of entertainment available on Good Friday. In fact Buddhists expected me to go to church on Good Friday and I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t a churchgoer. Because Sri Lanka is a Buddhist society where Buddhism hasn’t been commercialised and secularised, this rubs off on all religions. Buddhists are not critical of Buddhism (even though some of its rituals tap the supernatural) and other religions benefit from the fact that Buddhism underwrites an all pervasive atmosphere of religiosity.

At Christmas, Sri Lankan Christians can attend church without being scoffed at by secularists. In Australia, Christmas the festival often gets in the way of Christmas the holiday and the tendency to overindulge. It is Christmas the holiday, the holiday season and the celebration of all things secular that takes precedence over any religious message.

In Australia one gets the feeling that to many people Christianity gets in the way of Christmas (namely, the various indulgences of the holiday season).  In Sri Lanka by contrast, the religious aspect of Christmas is what makes the season special, although Christians are in the minority.  Also, the Christian community is not large enough to fragment into Christians who identify as Christians, and ex Christians to whom Christianity is an embarrassment and are therefore happy to see Christmas smothered by commercialism. Finally, non-Europeans tend to be more superstitious and traditional than Europeans and therefore adhere closely to the rituals associated with their specific religion, which is why in Sri Lanka the religious aspect of Christianity is strong and respected by the adherents of other religions, more than it is respected by secularists in Australia.

Buddhists respect the Christmas tradition and they see the need to create an atmosphere of piety and peace so that Christians can celebrate. Hence, Christians can celebrate Christmas in Sri Lanka without fear of being subject to terrorist attacks. And Buddhists do not put out articles, messages and texts, abusing Christianity and Christians, and proclaiming the superiority of their religion. Most importantly, the spirituality of Christmas is not overwhelmed by the celebration of all things secular such as having an extended party. And we have Buddhism to thank for this. Buddhism by keeping spirituality at the forefront of Buddhist festivals does the same for other religious festivals.

Certainly, all Sri Lankans enjoy Christmas day as it is a time of year when offices are shut and most things come to a halt. But it could easily turn into a nasty experience if the Buddhist majority did not respect the traditions of other religions. For instance, the few Christians still in Bethlehem complain that Muslim men from neighbouring towns turn Christmas in Bethlehem into a noisy and insensitive celebration that has nothing to do with Christianity.

As a child I helped put up candles on the retaining walls of the houses of Buddhist neighbours and Buddhist friends in turn liked the pagan elements in Christianity (e.g. Christmas tree). They see Christianity as something Sri Lankan nor alien. The majority of Christians are Sinhalese and the majority of services are conducted in Sinhalese. And Christians in return respect Buddhism and the beauty of its rituals and other cultural elements which underwrites the uniqueness of Sri Lanka.

In the early eighties I had a chat with Bishop Nanayakkara in Badulla. I asked him what his Buddhist relatives thought of him being a Catholic and he said that they were proud of him. Likewise, he corrected me when I praised the beauty of up-country Sinhalese villagers with their terraced farming. He said that the low country village with tank, temple and rice field was quintessentially Sri Lankan.

This year my Buddhist friends sent me Christmas cards. The only holiday greetings came from nominal Christians who probably weren’t sure about my back ground, and one Muslim in America who knows that I am Christian, who covered up the Christmas references in the card he sent me.

Hence, Christmas in Sri Lanka is bolstered by two factors. Firstly, tradition is strong in Third World countries. Secondly and most significantly, the forgiving nature of Buddhism, little appreciated by Christians, is what makes Christmas in Sri Lanka a time of peace and love. We would do well to remember that the majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are the descendants of former Buddhists who converted to Catholicism under duress in the wake of Portuguese conquest. In many ways, the tolerance of Buddhists embodies the love which is at the forefront of the Christian message.

I would love to get feedback from Sri Lankan expatriates of Christian persuasion about my observations.

*  Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera has Ph.D and is also Chancellor of Sri Jayawardenapura University.

  ** Eardley Lieversz captained royal College at cricket and has a Ph.D in Anthropology.



Filed under Australian culture, cultural transmission, historical interpretation, reconciliation, sri lankan society, world affairs

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