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Coming from a Christian family, Christmas is one of the most important festivals for us. I was born in Navaly village in Jaffna to a wealthy Christian family. My grandparents celebrated Christmas by sharing home made food to the village people. My grandmother baked cakes. We shared the meal with neighbours and relatives on Christmas day. We went to church on Christmas morning with new clothes and celebrated the joy of Christmas with family and friends.
Before I was born and before the war started, our family used to get our Christmas tree from Nuwara Eliya by train. The tree was collected from the Jaffna railway station and brought to our family home. During the war, the rail tracks were damaged and land route through Elephant Pass to Jaffna was destroyed. We were disconnected from rest of the country.
We used to send Christmas cards to our relatives in Sri Lanka and abroad and receive parcels from them during Christmas season. Sometimes there were Christmas greeting phone calls through the postmaster neighbour’s house. During the war phone lines was disrupted and we were cut off from the world.
Family members from abroad and other parts of Sri Lanka used to visit our home during the Christmas season but they could not come once the war started. One of my maternal uncles who lives in Nigeria has never visited Sri Lanka since 1982. The other one who lived in Kandy did not come to Jaffna after 1985.
In 1987 the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) started a military operation and captured the Jaffna peninsula on October 25. We were forced to move into a Hindu Temple for our safety. During the IPKF’s time in the North, soldiers randomly fired and shot at people on the streets and in their homes so we slept in the temple. Whenever we felt safe, we returned home. But when we heard the gunshots or dogs barking (a sign of an IPKF patrol) or someone shouted “Army”, we ran back into the temple. Sometimes we left food on the stove and fled.
We always stayed close to the temple, which was near our house. During those days we stopped going to church. The IPKF visited the temple often. In 1987 we celebrated Christmas at the temple in the presence of the IPKF. There was no new dress that Christmas. There was no Christmas lunch served with chicken. Christmas was just another day with fear of death and an outbreak of cholera in the temple. A hole made in the earth was used as the toilet. We had a shortage of food. We cooked rice from our paddy fields and had porridge, which was shared with relatives. Our community life was rich during the painful time of the IPKF.
We always had a Christmas tree decorated with colourful bulbs brought by my father from Nigeria. In 1990 Eelam War 2 broke out between the LTTE and government forces. The power supply to North was stopped by the government. I lived without any electricity for six years; there were no colourful light bulbs on Christmas days until we moved to Colombo in 1996.
We made our own lamp called the jam bottle lamp. Batteries and candles were banned by the government. We were given a small amount of kerosene oil through the cooperative shop. Kerosene oil was precious during the war. We used coconut oil to light lamps. We studied and ate under this dim light. We enjoyed full moon days.
We used to watch Christmas plays and Christmas carols on Rupavahini but during the war we never watched TV. We listened to radio, mainly the LTTE’s Voice of Tigers or the BBC Tamil News using a bicycle. The radio was connected to the bicycle, which we kept upside down and peddled it to generate electricity when batteries were banned by the government.
My mother used to make pudding and jelly during Christmas. We had drinks from the refrigerator to cool our thirst on hot sunny days. But during war our refrigerator became a storage place where we kept various items because it did not function.
We used to wear ironed clothes to church on Christmas morning. During the war some people used a charcoal iron while others gave their clothes to the laundry man. Some of us folded the clothes neatly and kept it under our pillow and slept on it to get out the wrinkles.
Cleanliness is healthy. During the war we got the soap through cooperative shop. Body soap such as Lux soap was precious as was Sunlight washing soap. We cleaned pots and pans using ash from the wooden stove. We bathed with water from the well. Due to bombing and lack of soap, bathing was not easy those days. People have ran to safety with wet clothes and soap on their faces. Sometimes we washed our clothes with palmyra fruit juice.
I couldn’t understand the Christmas message that Christ came to save the world while we were awakened in the middle of the nights by bombs and when we had to run into a bunker. The saviour of the world became unreal to me when our village was bombed in 1995, killing 150 people including my aunt. The joy of the birth of Christ disappeared when the people who found shelter in St James’ Church and St Peter’s Church were killed inside in the presence of Jesus.
The 1995 October 30 Jaffna displacement made us leave our homes permanently. We moved to Murasumoddai near Paranthan Junction. The first Christmas away from our family home was in 1995. Since then we have not returned to our home. Fear of death continued and there was no joy of Christmas during the civil war; death was closer to us than the celebration of life. The Christmas spirit disappeared and post traumatic stress disorder took the place of Christmas joy.
All the memories of my grandparents were lost when the Army occupied our house and used it as a camp. The Army returned an empty house in 2013 without any furniture or memories of our family life.
The long table used by my grandparents to host Christmas lunch was never seen again. The huge pots used to boil rice after the harvest from our paddy fields are lost forever. The wooden container that stored rice until the next harvest is not there. Our house was surrounded with fruit trees such as mango, banana and papaya that are now gone. But now a new bo tree planted by the Army remains in our house with the hope of peace and reconciliation.