“Someone’s kidnapped the Baby Jesus!”
So exclaimed my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, on December 23rd when we checked into a hotel in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, and took a peek into the Christmas Nativity scene that had a prominent position in the hotel lobby. And yes, there was a space in the scene’s central area that is traditionally occupied by the Holy Infant. My better half also observed that only two Wise Men were present. Could the missing third Wise Man have kidnapped little Jesus?
We’d decided to spend our Christmas break in Jaffna because, firstly, it seemed like something different to do at this time of year, and secondly, we thought that the festive season might be a little less mad there. The second of those reasons proved to be wishful thinking. For one thing, Jaffna is the main city for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, many of whom are Christians, and obviously people there were going to make a big thing of Christmas. Besides, as I have discovered during my travels over the years, trying to escape Christmas is a futile exercise. Everyone, everywhere, loves Christmas. (Even when I lived in North Korea, my local store had a Christmas tree standing in its forecourt – for 365 days of the year.)
Perhaps Jaffna’s most striking – literally striking – way of marking Christmas this year was to deck out one of its landmarks, the Clock Tower, in multiple strings of coloured lights, so that at night it resembled a giant lightsabre. I should say that the Clock Tower does not tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as it seems to do in the following picture. Its apparent tilting was caused by the clumsy angle at which I held my camera, possibly due to my having imbibed a couple of beers by that point in the evening.
Close to the Clock Tower is the Jetwing Hotel, in whose rooftop bar we spent Christmas Eve. It was there that we encountered Santa Claus. He was, it has to be said, a pretty disturbing-looking Santa Claus, equipped with not only a fake woolly beard but also a mask that might have been worn by a serial killer in a 1980s slasher movie. In fact, he looked like the sort of Santa who should be popping out of the chimney at you at Halloween, not at Christmas.
Earlier on Christmas Eve, on Jaffna’s Main Street, we’d witnessed a scene that seemed to encapsulate Christmas in Sri Lanka more than any other scene could – a bunch of Sri Lankan blokes loading Christmas trees onto the roof of a tuk-tuk.
On Christmas Day, as an alternative to the normal practices of present-giving, festive-TV-watching and binge-eating and drinking, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk and go on a tour of the islands just off the Jaffna peninsula, which are linked by causeways. We discovered on the island of Kayts what we thought were the nicest Christmas tree and Nativity scene of the season – not because they were particularly lavish or spectacular, but because they fitted in snugly amid their surroundings, the attractive interior of St James Church at Kayts town. Our elderly edition of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka had warned us that the church’s “façade and exterior walls survive, but the roof is gone and there’s nothing inside but wooden scaffolding, giving the entire structure the look of an elaborate film prop.” Happily, since that edition was published, the church has been restored and is now a functioning place of worship again.
We discovered that Christmas had even made it to Punkudutivu, the furthest out of the causeway-linked islands, as this illustrated sheet draped down the front of a house-front shows. I could almost imagine that Punkudutivu got its name from the fact that travelling on its ultra-bumpy roads is a pretty punk-rock thing to do – so using a flying sleigh is probably the most comfortable way to visit the place.
Finally, on the morning of December 25th, we noticed that – hallelujah! – the Baby Jesus had suddenly materialised in the middle of our hotel’s Nativity scene. At the same time we realised that, since he was born on Christmas Day, he obviously wasn’t going to be present in the stable on the 23rd or the 24th. There was still no sign of that third Wise Man, though. Maybe he’d started on the eggnog a few days early.