The Dilmah Annual Christmas Celebration for Tea Planters

Anura Gunasekera (2023)
The elegant Dutch Burgher Union premises was the venue for the annual Planters’ Christmas Dinner, hosted by Dilmah, following a tradition set in place in 2017 by its patriarch, the late Merrill J Fernando. A man with a life-long passion for Pure Ceylon Tea, which contributed much to the success of Dilmah, the hosting of this gathering was his way of honouring the contribution to the industry made by the men, often conveniently forgotten in the celebration of balance sheets of companies brightened by successful tea production statistics.

Malik, the late Merrill’s eldest son, graciously welcomed the guests. Whilst thanking all planters, past and present, for the contribution to the industry, he also spoke of the enduring association between Ceylon Tea, its plantations, and the hospitality industry, emphasizing that the Dilmah, Tea Trails concept owed its success, in a very large measure, to that cherished link.

Whilst Merrill’s influence on the event was palpable, despite his absence, what was heart-warming was the active participation of Amrith and Tasha, the grandchildren, ensuring that the tradition was safe in the hands of the new generation; their presence suggested a comforting sense of continuity and respect for a legacy left behind by grandfather, Merrill Fernando.

Events of this nature, especially at this time of year, generally conjure images of festive over-consumption but the Dilmah, annual planters’ Christmas Dinner has a meaning which goes beyond. It is another aspect of the Dilmah acknowledgement of the debt it owes to plantations and the planters who manage them, and to a great industry in general, also signified by the Dilmah sponsorship of the History of Ceylon Tea (HOCT) website. As Malik mentioned in his brief address to the gathering, the Dilmah, HOCT, is the largest, and the most comprehensive, single- industry website of its kind, in the world.

Worthy of mention is also the publication, “Wisdom In The Leaf”, sponsored entirely by Dilmah - referred to by plantation specialist Dyan Seneviratne in his vote-of-thanks later- an all-inclusive and wide-ranging collation of practical planting knowledge, set out by some of the most competent practitioners of the profession. The consensus of opinion amongst the many industry specialists who took time and trouble to read the publication was that, whilst research findings on the subjects covered were available in many scholarly scientific journals, no single publication in recent decades addressed the practical application of scientific theory, at tea-field level, in such precise and useful detail.

The gathering itself was a thought-provoking blend of tradition, recognition and the sharing of experiences across the ages, the meeting of men from different generations, but united by an enduring commonality and an interconnectedness- the service of one great industry. There were nonagenarians like Saliya Atapattu and Vernon Tissera, octogenarians Bathiya Jayaratne, Jayantissa Ratwatte and Chula de Silva, men who entered the industry when the “Raj” ruled the enclave, being felicitated alongside later entrants, now in their seventies and sixties. Amongst men nurtured in a protocol driven professional milieu, the respect accorded to seniority was still a given, though. Space constraints do not permit the enumeration of all present by name, but the invitees were, without exception, men of calibre, who had rightfully earned the respect of both peers and successors in the industry.

Dyan Seneviratne, in his very fitting concluding address, paid tribute to the late Merrill Fernando, expressing regret at his demise and calling for remembrance, whilst rightly referring to him as the iconic man of the century. He also thanked Malik and Dilhan, the two sons, for loyalty to a tradition set in place by the father. Dyan echoed the sentiments of all those present and that of the plantation fraternity in general, in publicly acknowledging the continuing engagement of Dilmah with the producer segment of the industry, not simply by playing lip-service but actively demonstrating it in various meaningful ways.
Not forgotten by Dyan were team from Dilmah, for the excellent arrangements, and David Colin-Thome, curator of the Dilmah HOCT project. The night’s fare was a firm endorsement of the traditions and the high standards planters have been reputed for.

Anura Gunasekera


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