Christmas at Shepheard’s, 1898

Christmas_Shepheards

George Warrington Steevens (1869–1900) was a British journalist, the most famous war correspondent of his time. He accompanied Kitchener to Khartoum and covered the Second Boer War in South Africa. En route to the latter he spent time enough in Egypt to toss off a state of the nation study, Egypt in 1898, published by Dodd, Mead & Co of New York, 1899. A veteran of the battlefield it was unlikely he was going to have much good to say about the lah-di-dah society of his fellow Englishmen in Cairo and, sure enough, he didn’t.

He certainly did not like the company at his hotel: “Inside Shepheard’s you will find just the Bel Alp in winter quarters. All the people who live in their boxes and grand hotels, who know all lands but no languages, who have been everywhere and done nothing, looked at everything and seen nothing, read everything and know nothing – who spoil the globe by trotting on it.”

He was in residence at Shepheard’s on 25 December: “I woke this morning in the usual cage of mosquito-gauze, rang the bell, and the usual brown face under a tarbush poked itself in at the door: ‘Good Christmas, sar,’ it said. By Jove! Yes, it was Christmas Day; and looking out of window I saw, for the first time in Egypt, a true English sky, heavy and yellow. It was chilly cold too; Egypt is not near so warm as it looks. Looking down from the window, I started. Was I still asleep, or did I really see that great white bird, stork-billed, duck-footed, waddling placidly up to the back-door of Shepheard’s? And then I remembered that a tame pelican of great dignity was wont to disport himself there; but that took all the Christmas out of my mouth.”

“When I got up I found the hotel full of bouquets of roses; a few people went out later, ostensibly to church; but otherwise the wandering English made Christmas Day much like any other day. No such luck for the British residents of Cairo. It seems that when they first came here, the society of Cairo was much concerned to find that they had no day for all going round calling on each other, as Continentals do on New Year’s Day, Levantine Christians on their New Year’s Day, and Mussulmans at Bairam. On consideration, the society of Cairo decided that the British ought to have such an anniversary, and fixed on Christmas Day as the most suitable. So the ladies sit at home all the afternoon dealing out tea, and the gentlemen go round, calling on everybody else, and Egyptian friends call on everybody after the same manner; so that the whole British colony, with native auxiliaries, rotates in a body round itself all Christmas afternoon. A stranger, I was called on for no such effort; so I went out peacefully to lunch.”

john-maler-collier-1850-1934-united-kingdom-portrait-of-george-warrington-steevens
Portrait of George Warrington Steevens by John Maler Collier

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