Christmas and New Year in the Persian Gulf: Protocol and Ceremony
In the British administered Persian Gulf, the festive period was a time of celebration for colonial officers and their families, yet it still required the imperial protocol and ceremony that helped to solidify hierarchies of power.
On Christmas and New Year's Day, as on the two major Islamic festivals and the monarchâs birthday, local rulers and notables paid personal calls to colonial officers, and the Residency or Agency buildingâs flagstaff was ceremonially dressed and decorated. Archival files dealing with general etiquette and procedures observed for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha contain interesting details about how Christmas and New Year were observed in the Persian Gulf.
'Entrance to Bushire Residency' (Photo 355/1/34)
Christmas Greetings from the Persian Gulf
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Political Agent at Bahrain would receive personal visits from the ruling Al Khalifah sheikhs of Bahrain and local merchants on Christmas and New Yearâs Day.
However, calls in person were not possible for the sheikhs of the Trucial Coast (modern-day United Arab Emirates) and Qatar with whom the Political Agent also corresponded, either personally or through a native agent. Therefore, letters and greetings cards were sent instead. Shown here are a few examples sent from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah between 1924-1951.
With a letter, dated 21 Shawwal 1356 [24 December 1937], offering belated thanks for the Political Agentâs Eid al-Fitr greetings, the Sheikh sent two cards. The first card offers thanks to the Political Agent for his Eid greetings [nashkurukum âalĂĄ tahniâatikum lanÄ bihÄdhÄ al-âÄ«d al-saâÄ«d] while the second card wishes him a Happy Christmas [âÄ«d al-milÄd al-saâÄ«d].
Another letter in Arabic, dated 11 Shawwal 1355 [25 December 1936] to the Political Agent contains the following: âOn the occasion of Christmas [áž„ulĆ«l al-âÄ«d al-masÄ«áž„Ä«] I offer you my heartfelt greetings praying to God to give you a long life full of prosperityâ.
As well as sending his greetings to the Political Agent at Bahrain, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr would also write to the Political Resident at Bushire, for example his letter of 5 Dhu al-Hijjah 1360 [29 December 1942] wishing him a merry Christmas and hoping that he should âenjoy good health and prosperity [kamÄl al-áčŁiáž„áž„ah wa al-rafÄh]â. The Political Resident responded with a letter dated 18 January 1943: âI thank you for your wishes for Christmas [âÄ«d milÄd sayyidinÄ al-masÄ«áž„], and hope that you will enjoy good health and prosperityâ.
It was also common for Political Agents to receive Christmas greetings from local merchants and notables as well as rulers. An example from Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo appears on headed stationary decorated with a star and crescent moon over a palm tree. The Political Agent responded with a quick line to thank him for his âkind note of greetings for Christmas and New Yearâ, and for a delivery of âdelicious fruitâ that was sent to mark the occasion.
A further example is a letter, dated 24 December 1936, received from a prominent Qatari merchant, Salih bin Sulayman al-Manâi: âOn the occasion of Christmas [âÄ«d al-krismas], I write to offer you my heartiest congratulations and pray God to let you have many returns of the day in good health and full happinessâ.
Letter from Salih bin Sulayman al-Manâi to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 48)
Expats and Missionaries
Protestant missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church in America, known interchangeably as the American or Arabian Mission, were active in the Persian Gulf from the turn of the twentieth century. As well as their (not very successful) proselytizing to the indigenous population, they provided a religious framework for expats and the British colonial establishment residing in the region.
On 23 December 1936, Reverend Gerrit Van Peurseum, a missionary stationed at Bahrain, invited the Political Agent and his wife to a âDivine Serviceâ on Christmas Day at the American Mission. The Political Agent took part in the service by undertaking to read Biblical passages, which included Isaiah 9:2-8 and 11:1-10, and Luke 2:1-22.
However, relations with the missionaries were not always straightforward. Dr Rev Louis P. Dame, another missionary stationed at Bahrain, wrote an annoyed letter to the Political Agent on Easter Sunday 1934 complaining that the Agency flags had been raised earlier that week for a âMoslem holidayâ (Eid al-Adha), but, as he wrote, âTo-day is a Christian holiday, shouldnât they be displayed also!â The Political Agent wrote back with a one line response that âthe flags of this Agency are displayed on the Christian holiday of Christmas.â
Indeed, the missionaries were viewed with some scorn since their practices and hymns were different from those to which some were accustomed. In his diaries, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, the Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, describes the missionaries as âfrigidâ and âtiresomeâ. In several entries on Christmas, he notes how they âannoyed everyone by singing some tiresome American hymns with no words or tune that anyone had ever heard beforeâ and how they provided âa very dull uninspiring service and unchristmassy hymnsâ.
The reality was that Belgrave, and most likely the British colonial establishment in the Persian Gulf, viewed the Missionâs Americaness with a degree of cultural snobbery. In addition, this was tinged with recurring suspicions that they were representing American geopolitical interests in the region, or, worse, they harboured secret loyalties to Germany due to their Germanic origins (see earlier post on American propaganda in post-war Bahrain). In another diary entry in 1926, Belgrave remarks: â[âŠ] a long solo sung by a female with a dreadful voice and a German accent, and a sermon in broadest American which lasted half an hourâ. We can only imagine what Belgrave would make of the prevalence today of Ê»O Christmas TreeÊŒ based on the German song Ê»O TannenbaumÊŒ or the quintessentially âChristmassyâ and American Ê»All I Want for Christmas Is YouÊŒ by Mariah Carey.
British Library, âFile 27/2 I Etiquetteâ IOR/R/15/2/646
British Library, âFile G/7 I Ê»Id calls, letters and noticesâ IOR/R/15/2/1942
British Library, âFile G/7 II Ê»Id calls, letters and noticesâ IOR/R/15/2/1943
University of Exeter, Special Collections, âBelgrave Diariesâ, Papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, 1926-1957