Another Christmas in Colombo

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that everyone loves Christmas: not only people in Christian countries, but also people in Buddhist, Muslim and downright atheistic ones too.

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In Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Santa Claus was lurking outside the store-entrances in the run-up to December 25th, even though as a mainly Orthodox-Christian country they weren’t supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ until two weeks later.  In Japan, the Christmas trees, decorations, presents, carols and so on provided a pretty backdrop to the end-of-year bonenkai parties.  In Tunisia, I saw Tunisians gamely sporting Santa hats while they did business in the alleyways of Tunis’s Medina.  Even in North Korea, at a time when the only religion you were officially allowed to practice was one where you worshipped the abilities and achievements of Kim Jong Il, my local supermarket insisted on having a rather scruffy-looking Christmas tree out in its foyer – not just over the festive season, but for the full twelve months of the year.

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So it’s no surprise that Sri Lankans are big Christmas-philes too, even if their country is predominantly Buddhist.  As late as yesterday, Christmas Eve, a market selling Nativity scenes and Christmas trees was doing a busy trade on the Dehiwala stretch of Galle Road.  Meanwhile, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, the prestigious and leafy boulevard lined with fancy shopping arcades and imposing ministry and embassy buildings, is currently home to a gorgeous nocturnal display of Christmas lights.  And my local branch of Keells, the Sri Lankan supermarket company, had a sign up yesterday announcing that its booze section would be closed on Christmas Day.  That’s really entering the spirit of Christmas.

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Here, though, is a selection of my favourite images from this current Christmas in Colombo.  Firstly, I liked the above giant toy soldiers standing guard at the entrance to Hafele’s on Duplication Road.  A change from the usual tacky Santas and glitzy Christmas trees, they give the shop’s façade a nicely wintry, Germanic flavour – even if the temperature was in the 30s and the air was swelteringly humid when I took the photo.

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For Christmas trees, hats off to my local picture-house, the Savoy Cinema, for erecting this cinematically-themed tree outside its doors.  Its trunk is a big curling strip of celluloid and, instead of baubles, the tree is decorated with film-reels.  It would have been nice to report that the Savoy had gone even further into the spirit of the season and was showing a selection of classic Christmas movies like Gremlins (1984), Die Hard (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Bad Santa (2003) today.  But no, it’s showing Aquaman (2018) and Mary bloody Poppins Returns (2018).

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Running the Savoy a close second in the ‘inventive Christmas tree’ stakes is this one at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, which has been made entirely out of empty wine bottles.  It’s an appropriately sobering reminder that the worst aspect of Christmas is not the pressure to buy expensive presents or the arguments with relatives, but the hangover on Boxing Day.

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There are a lot of Nativity scenes dotted around Colombo this Christmas – and almost all of them seem to be equipped with an unfeasibly large Baby Jesus.  I mean, just look at him.  He’s enormous!  He really looks like he popped out wholly grown, complete with a full head of hair. Indeed, in the second picture below, he looks as big as the ox – and looks like he could probably eat an ox too.

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And finally, although it’s less fancy and extensive than some of the items pictured above, here is my favourite piece of Christmas in Colombo this year – the tree on the veranda of my number-one ‘man-pub’, the Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  In the rapidly developing lanes between Galle Road and Marine Drive, with old-style houses vanishing at a rate of knots and new, concrete apartment blocks popping up like mushrooms, the Vespa really does feel like a hold-out.  It’s one of the last surviving remnants of a bygone era.  Let’s hope it remains intact during 2019 too.

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In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

Christmas in Colombo

 

 

For a country where just seven percent of the population professes to be Christian, Sri Lanka sure seems to love Christmas.  That’s the conclusion I draw after tramping about Colombo for the past couple of weeks and snapping pictures of the many festive-themed adornments to the city-streets.

 

For example, here’s a Nativity scene that’s been created on a little platform just inside the front wall of St Peter’s College on Galle Road.  Brightly-coloured figures kneel, bow and pay homage amid the straw: red-robed Magi, blue-and-red-winged angels, the usual little sheep that look like they’ve strayed from a toy farm set.  A narrow strip of wood runs from the wall to the platform, looking a bit like a drawbridge that Mary and Joseph can pull up when they get tired of the visitors.

 

 

Further down Galle Road, silhouettes of Father Christmas and his reindeer decorate an arch in front of the entrance to the Majestic City shopping complex.  I have to say that Santa here looks particularly horrible.  He’s a brown, shapeless and worryingly faecal-looking blob with a red Santa-hat on top.  They say that you can’t polish a turd, but evidently you can stick a red hat on one and call it ‘Santa’.

 

 

Meanwhile, there’s more Santa-related shenanigans down on Marine Drive, where I spotted this life-sized image of him hanging outside a balcony several floors up an apartment building.  The building itself looks pretty grotty with rusty-brown stains creeping down the masonry below the satellite TV dishes and air-conditioning extractor fans, and I can’t help wondering if Santa is desperate to climb into the place or climb out of it.

 

 

Further down Galle Road at the entrance of another shopping centre, Crescot City, these Christmas ice-palace fortifications have been erected.  They’ve become selfie-central for Colombo’s well-heeled young shoppers.  When I was there the outside temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius, so it was no surprise that the clumps of snow on the palace’s stonework seemed to be melting.  Or that the heavily-clad elf at the top seemed to be flailing with heat exhaustion.

 

 

Next door to Crescot City is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  Entering its lobby, the song Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs immediately started playing in my head because pink is the colour scheme the hotel management have adopted for their Christmas-tree and holly-wreath decorations this year.  Downstairs, a floor has been given over to a Christmas Market.  During my visit the market’s fish-stall seemed to be selling only long, thick, roasted, smoked and silent-screaming eels.  Out of festive delicacy, I will avoid traumatising you by showing pictures of their dead, gaping faces.

 

 

Finally, I have to say my favourite Christmas sight in Colombo is this cheap, humble but charming Christmas tree standing outside the Vespa Sports Club, one of the ‘man-pubs’ in the city that I frequent.  Sitting drinking beer next to a tatty Christmas tree on a ramshackle veranda in the tropics – for me, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.

 

 

Full moon over Princes Street

 

 

“It’s Chriii-iiistmaaa-aaas!” Noddy Holder of the 1970s glam-rock band Slade famously bellows during the ubiquitous-at-this-time-of-year song Merry Christmas Everybody.

 

Actually, Noddy, I don’t need you to tell me it’s Christmas.  I knew it was Christmas when I woke this morning with my head and body suffering the effects of a lengthy alcohol and food binge the day before on December 25th.  This morning I had that particularly Christmassy feeling of never, ever wanting to see another glass of red wine again.

 

And what Christmas presents had I just received from my family?  Why, no fewer than five bottles of red wine.

 

Anyway, a few evenings ago, I found myself wandering along Edinburgh’s Princes Street and admiring the sight of its Christmas attractions; which formed an bright, colourful and, as the evening darkened, an ever-more jewelled and phantasmagorical spectacle across Princes Street Gardens below.  These included a Ferris wheel, carousel, maze, helter-skelter, rollercoaster, ice rink and miniature train.  Mind you, the most gorgeous feature of the scene was the full moon that hovered above North Bridge, to the right of the Balmoral Hotel’s Victorian clock-tower.  I managed finally to snap a picture of it all, although it was difficult to find a good vantage spot – the best places for taking photos seemed to be crowded with Chinese tourists taking selfies.

 

It feels far removed from how Christmas was regarded in Scotland just a couple of generations ago.  From the 16th century, Christmas’s celebration had been discouraged by the Scottish Presbyterian Church on the grounds that there was no basis for it in the scriptures.  This lack of church approval, it’s said, was what helped to make Hogmanay so popular in Scotland – as there wasn’t really a Christian festival going on in the middle of winter that provided an excuse to knock back a few drinks, you could at least knock them back at the secular end of the old year / beginning of the new one.  Indeed, Christmas Day didn’t become a national holiday in Scotland until 1958 and Boxing Day, so necessary for sleeping off the effects of that Christmas-Day over-indulgence, didn’t become one until 1974.

 

Well, now that the influence of Presbyterianism has waned, it’s all different.  I’m sure the sight of these glitzy and downright bacchanalian Christmas festivities in Princes Street Gardens would send John Knox, the Scottish Kirk’s beardy, frowny old founder, birling in his grave.  Indeed, he’d probably have drilled his way to China by now.

 

Incidentally, I also noticed that, just in time for the release of the new Star Wars movie, the Walter Scott Monument seems to have acquired its own light-sabre.