Christmas 2019 : Nativitatis (Christmas) – Retracing Inspiration | Sunday Observer

Christmas 2019 : Nativitatis (Christmas) – Retracing Inspiration

22 December, 2019

Christmas in poor circumstances heralding the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Judah is the most renowned solemn and widely held festival for Christians. The birth of Jesus diametrically divided the history of the world into two distinct eras. BC – Before Christ, and AD – Anno Domini. The birth of Christ also divided the Holy Bible into the Old and the New Testament. Christmas means the Mass of Christ and Christmas is called Notivitatis in Latin. It is recorded that the word Christmas first appeared in the year 1038. In some Western countries Christmas day is celebrated by three Masses. The mass of midnight, dawn and day. They are held to symbolise the three-fold birth of Jesus Christ. First in the bosom of the Father, second from the womb of the Virgin Mary and third in the souls of the faithful.

The first evidence of the celebration of Nativitat’s on December 25 can be dated between 336-352 AD which period was also the reign of Pope Julius I. It was in the second quarter of the 4th century that Rome had celebrated Nativitatis on December 25. At that time December 25 had been the day for a pagan festival in Rome started in the year 274 AD, called saturnalia by the then emperor Aurelius. It was the birthday of the unconquered sun. Perhaps, this date was probably chosen to oppose Christmas day of December 25.

Whatever the origin of December 25 celebration the accession of Emperor Constantine saw the specific day celebrated spreading from Rome to the West. Two reasons can be subscribed to the non celebration of Christmas prior to 336 AD. One was that celebration of Birthdays was banned in Rome by Caesar who had instructed Romans to celebrate Caesar’s Birthday only. To celebrate Jesus or anybody’s birthday was a sacrilege to the Emperor. The second reason was a religious fallacy that the risen Christ was due to come in glory (2nd coming) at any time.

Christmas celebrations down the centuries became so boisterous that in England Oliver Cromwell had to ban its celebrations as the puritans dissociated themselves from the frolic that sometimes bordered on disrespect to the very person whose birth was celebrated.

Christmas has been celebrated in Sri Lanka from the ancient Anuradhapura period. According to the national chronicle King Pandukabhaya the founder of Anuradhapura had allocated premises for building a chapel for Kuban the God of wealth, another for a sect called the yonas and a monastery for the wandering mendicant monks. It points out the remarkable religious amity and harmony in the ancient period of Sri Lanka.

Christians in Sri Lanka

Ancient chronicles say there were Christians in Sri Lanka much earlier than 1505. The two crosses excavated in 1913 at Anuradhapura by archaeologists according to H.W. Codrington the famous historian are identical with the cross at St.Thomas Mount near Madras. The archaeological commissioner E.R. Arton had unearthed a rectangular stone column on which was cut in sunk relief a cross of a florate type standing on a stepped pedestal. Besides, the decorative Baptismal fount at the Vavuniya Museum shows that Christians had dwelled in Anuradhapura. The historians believe those Christians belonged to the Nestorian Greek Orthodox church. It is assumed that ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of Goodwill was sung during Christmas mass first in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

There is not much evidence for the celebration of Nativitatis among the eastern festivities of the church. The early historians of the church such as, Trenaeus and Turtulian have not mentioned the inclusion of Nativity as a festival in their writings. We have first evidence from Egypt for the celebration of Nativity, in about 200 AD coinciding with the reign of clement of Alexandria. But there is no evidence of a December 25 Christmas being celebrated.

It is a well known fact that Catholicism was first introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in 1505 when they invaded this Indian Ocean Island. It can be surmised that the first official Christmas mass in Sri Lanka was held in Colombo on December 25, 1505, by one Fr. Vances in a small prayer house built by Lourenco de Almeida and dedicated to St. Lawrence. King Buvanekabahu VIII who ruled in Kotte from 1521 to 1550 had requested the King of Portugal to send a group of Franciscan Missionaries to Kotte.

Legend has it that even the royal family of Kotte participated in the Christmas mass that was first celebrated on December 25, 1505 in Kotte. Historical evidence gathered from excavations, continued research and scholarly work of the experts both here and abroad strengthen the fact that Christianity was known to the islanders, and the Christians were living in pockets in several parts of the country long before the arrival of the Portuguese domination.

King Manuel of Portugal appointed Francisco de Almeida as the first governor to rule the East on March 24 in 1505. Francisco received a fleet of 22 ships and travelled to India. His arrival was soon followed by Lourenco de Almeida the governor’s son. Due to bad weather Lorenzo had to force-land in the Galle Harbour and then on November 15 at the Colombo Harbour.

Treaty with King of Kotte

Lorenzo signed a treaty with the king of Kotte, King Veera Parakramabahu. In terms of the treaty a factory was set up at Galbokka (Galle Buck) and adjoining it a chapel for the religious observances of the mariners.

The chapel was dedicated to St. Lawrence the patron Saint of the captain. There had been an itinerant priest to administer the sacraments to the soldiers and sailors in the Port of Colombo. It can be assumed that the first Christmas mass would have been sung on December 25, 1505 in all solemnity.

At every Christmas we are reminded of the birth of Jesus, and also of his mission for which he took the human form. Jesus completed his mission winning back to us the lost relationship with the divine. The Holy Family, Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph were found together at a cowshed in Bethlehem. As such Christmas is considered a festival of the family.

In Sri Lanka when Christmas became the main festival of Christians some traditions and customs of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year too were absorbed into Christmas. Catholicism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. Since then Christmas has been well celebrated in our country. Since that first Christmas retracing the inspiration of it effecting worldwide today Christmas has become a fast changing spiritual celebration. Christmas is the Holy event of God coming down to the abode of man in a human form, leaving his splendour and divinity aside, lest man would not recognise him.

Jesus is the son of God who created heaven and earth. He is the word through which the world was made and without him nothing has been created. In the course of time this word became man and dwelt with us and the evangelist John says; we saw his glory as of the only begotten of God full of grace and truth. This is the real Christmas event and must be understood as such.

The well known traveller Cosmos who navigated extensively in the Indian Ocean mentions Christians in Sri Lanka in his book ‘Topographia Christiana’ written in the first half of the 6th century which describes Sri Lanka as a great emporium of trade in the Indian Ocean. He says a Christian church as well as a Christian community was in Sri Lanka in the 6th century. Not only Cosmos but even earlier Persian Biographers who wrote long before him mention the existence of the Christian community in Taprobane (Sri Lanka) where Christians would have definitely celebrated Christmas in a fitting manner.

Christmas is a season well known for good cheer and universal festivity. Though the level of Christmas celebrations changes from place to place and according to one’s means, the seasonal cheer and love spread around during Christmas is something universal. It is in such circumstances that Sri Lanka too celebrates Christmas and there is no better time for us to think about the unique way in which Christmas was celebrated in this island home from the ancient times.

‘Nativitatis’ or Christmas from its inception has been inspirational. Christmas, or the birth of Christ in Bethlehem inspired mankind with love all over the world and is today retracing the purpose and meaning to Christmas which sadly the world has forgotten. Nativitatis or Christmas, brings and reminds afresh the need to change our lives.

Sri Lanka is fortunate to have received the good news of Christmas. Yet as Christianity has been in Sri Lanka a few hundred years after the death of Jesus mystery remains as to when exactly the first Christmas celebration in Sri Lanka was held.