Today, at home and abroad, Englishmen and Englishwomen will come together to celebrate St George’s Day. Parades, balls and concerts will be attended by those keen to mark the day of England’s patron saint. In England, from the late-nineteenth century, the Royal Society of St George (RSStG) took the lead in St George’s Day celebrations, the association having been established to ‘revive the recognition and celebration in every part of the world, of the Old English Festival of St George’. In many sites across the globe, the association’s aim was achieved. Whether organised by branches of the RSStG or affiliated English Societies, St George’s Day celebrations began to gain popularity among English communities across Asia as an organised expression of Englishness.
The early-twentieth century signalled the onset of St George’s Day celebrations in Southeast Asia. In 1913, a St George’s Society (StGS) was established by Englishmen residing in the Malaysian state of Malacca with the object of ‘celebrating St George’s Day and of encouraging in every possible way the spirit of loyalty to the Empire and respect for the Flag’ (Singapore Free Press, 16 February 1914). The following year, the association now boasting a ‘membership of over ninety’, the Malacca StGS marked the day of their Patron Saint with a ‘fancy dress ball in the Malacca Club, when hosts and guests to the number of one hundred and seventy danced the merry round until the early hours’ (Singapore Free Press, 27 April 1914). Though not a familiar feature of St George’s Day celebrations in England, fancy dress balls, with prizes for those dressed most extravagantly, were a popular choice for celebrations overseas. Newspaper reports published in the days after the event reveal the range of costumes sported by attendees. Appearing dressed as a lettuce, a Mrs Campbell sported an unusual choice; Mrs Duff’s costume was based on the theme of ‘superstitions’; and Mr Ebden arrived dressed as a baby. Aside from these curious selections, ethnic identities were also a popular choice. Mrs Koek, Mrs J.M. Sime and Mr F.E. Beatley attended dressed as a Welsh girl, Scotch lassie, and an Irishman respectively (Singapore Free Press, 27 April 1914).
The 1914 St George’s Day Ball in Malacca took place in the months prior to the outbreak of war that summer. Naturally, the hostilities saw the suspension of national celebrations throughout the English diaspora. The focus of many associations during the war years turned squarely to benevolent activities. However, in the aftermath of war, national celebrations resumed and, in 1919, St George’s Day was celebrated in Shanghai with a grand ball, the first since the outbreak of war. The location of the celebration, the city’s Town Hall, was, according to reports published in the RSStG’s journal, The English Race, ‘beautifully decorated with evergreens, flags of the Allies and shields of the English counties’.
In the post-war years, the English in Shanghai continued to celebrate St George’s Day in elaborate fashion. Writing around St George’s Day 1921, and having observed the extravagance of the Shanghai StGS celebrations, a reporter for the North China Daily News concluded that ‘perhaps it is only when we get outside our native land that we really feel the thrill of patriotism’. That year the association commemorated St George’s Day with a ball at the Astor House Hotel, described in China: A Sourcebook of Information as ‘the most commodious ballroom in Shanghai, renowned for its lobby, special dinner-parties, and balls. Banquets a special feature, and a French chef employed’.
Upon arrival, attendees of the ball were greeted by the sight of ‘red and white roses, flags and shields, and other mementoes of Old England’ (The English Race, 1921). In the hotel’s dining room, thanks to the ‘voluntary efforts of Mrs Dixon, wife of Captain W.A Dixon, one of the Committee’, more than ‘100 supper tables had been laid. On each was the Cross of St. George in silk, surmounted with a basket of red and white flowers—the floral decoration emblematic of the Day’. The culmination of the evening was, in traditional fashion, the reading out of messages exchanged between RSStG branches and affiliated Societies. Englishmen and Englishwomen in Shanghai received ‘Greetings from Tientsin’ and ‘Heartiest good wishes’ from Hong Kong and sent out the following dispatch to the London-based Parent Society:
‘On the occasion of St George’s Day, Shanghai Branch respectfully tenders loyal greetings to our Princely President and good wishes to the Parent Society’.
Of course, these celebrations were not limited to those in Shanghai, nor are they merely events of the past. In Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor and Singapore, St George’s Society’s remain, each of them celebrating St George’s Day in their own unique way.
In the early-twentieth century, across a number of sites in Asia, Welsh communities began to come together in celebration of their patron saint. On 29 February 1908 ‘the Welsh community in Hong Kong celebrated St David’s Day’. The Straits Times reported on the celebration, noting that ‘besides the football match between teams representing the Principality and England’, a grand dinner was held in the Hongkong hotel at night presided over by William Rees Morgan Davies, then Attorney General of Hong Kong. The following year, Hong Kong’s King Edward Hotel (see picture below) provided the backdrop for another St David’s Day dinner, again presided over by Rees Davies. Catering to a relatively small Welsh population, the Hong Kong celebrations were largely modest affairs. Yet, they were an important tool for those wishing to express a sense of national pride.
In 1911, ‘a number of patriotic Welshmen in Singapore’ inaugurated a movement to hold a dinner in one of the city’s ‘principal hotels’ on St David’s Day ‘in honour of the patron saint of their native land’ (The Straits Times, 20 February 1911). Little over one week later, at the Grand Hotel de l’Europe, one of Singapore’s ‘finest hotels’ located along the Esplanade, a ‘score of Welshmen dined under the genial presidency of Dr Davies’. During the toasts, attendees were told of the value of a celebration such as that which they attended. ‘National dinners’, Dr Davies declared, ‘did a great deal towards the fostering of brotherhood, goodwill and mutual kindness’ (The Straits Times, 2 March 1911). One year on, in 1912, these fraternal bonds were strengthened once more. At this, the second annual celebration of St David’s Day in Singapore, a ‘little band of Welshmen and their guests’ came together. Among those present were prominent members of the growing Welsh community including D.Y Perkins, ‘the well-known senior partner of Messrs. Drew and Napier’ and one of Singapore’s ‘most estimable citizens’ (The Straits Times, 9 March 1922).
The following year, a celebration of greater proportion was held, at the now-familiar venue of the Hotel de l’Europe. The hotel’s strategic location, with its panoramic view of the harbour, made it a popular place for the European community while its size – the palatial hotel had one hundred bedrooms and a large roof garden – ensured that functions need not be limited by lack of space. On the occasion of the 1913 dinner ‘pleasant intercourse, with songs Welsh and of other languages, the harmony of the former being given with the taste and skills one expects from Welshmen’, brought a pleasant evening to a close. Patrons of the dinner ‘mostly wore the leek, or its tropical equivalent’ – though reports remain silent on just what the tropical equivalent to a leek was. In common with the celebrations of many associations in the diaspora, the evening was rounded off with the exchange of greetings and a ‘fervent address wholly in Welsh’. For some of the evening’s guests this presented a challenge, their unfamiliarity with the Welsh tongue rendering the language ‘truly mystic’ (Singapore Free Press, 3 March 1913).
Over one hundred years on and St David’s Day continues to be commemorated in sites across Asia, including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where the Welsh communities came together to celebrate their patron saint.
Moving to another country-whether on a permanent or temporary basis-will, more often than not, require a host of readjustments. From practical transitions such as learning a new language or experiencing a new cuisine, to more fundamental alterations to a routine or lifestyle, relocating engenders change. The way in which you celebrate Christmas in your new country was one, perhaps less obvious, adjustment. Yet, for some expatriates, celebrating Christmas in a foreign land presented some very unique challenges. A 1924 article, printed in the Christmas Eve edition of the Malayan Saturday Post, informed readers of the difficulties British expatriates in Singapore faced. ‘For the average stay-at-home Englishman’, the article began, ‘the idea of Christmas in a hot climate seems quite unbelievable. Even though we are not now supposed to enjoy in England the “good old-fashioned Christmas” when the country was covered in snow, we do not have to bear tropical sunshine, and we are not denied the cosiness of the fireside’. ‘But in reality’, the author continued, ‘it is often easier for the men who live in tropical countries to enjoy the spirit of Christmas than for those at home. And why? Because we are able to celebrate the event in the ideal conditions which our imagination helps us to picture’.
For those far from home, Christmas brought about an extra opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. Gifts were transported between Britain and Singapore on a tremendous scale and, in 1937, included ‘Christmas trees, cream jars and sugar basins, woolly bears and doggies, and little sprigs of heather and holly’ (Straits Times, 17 December 1937). The sending of sprigs of heather was an easy way for those in Singapore to be reminded of home-an effect noted in the Singapore Free Press in 1935. In facetious tone, the article pondered that the sprig of heather was ‘probably considered an ideal present by the Scots friend at home, because it is one of the few gifts that does not carry customs duty’. The same article informed readers of the extra planes that had been added to the ‘England-Singapore service to cope with the rush’. Indeed, as the article went to press, ‘two Imperial Airways liners [were] heading for Singapore with about a ton of Christmas mail, in addition to Christmas parcels and passengers’. Two years later, the Straits Times told of Singapore’s ‘heaviest-ever Christmas mail’ which saw over 400 postal workers work for more than three hours to prepare it for delivery.
As December 25th nears, similar scenes to those above will undoubtedly be playing out across the globe, with expatriates eagerly awaiting festive packages from relatives, filled with their favourite treats from home.
Wherever you’re celebrating the festive season this year, merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!