Celebrating Christmas in Exile

Belgian refugees began arriving in Scotland from August 1914 as thousands were forced to flee their homes following the advancement of German troops. Often leaving with few or no possessions, refugees were faced with a difficult period during which they tried to settle into their new lives in unfamiliar surroundings. In such uncertain times, Christmas celebrations were likely to be far from the minds of Scotland’s growing number of Belgian exiles. As in The Netherlands, children in Belgium believe that ‘Sinterklaas/St. Niklaas’ (Flemish) or ‘Saint Nicholas’ (Walloon) brings them presents on 6 December. The below article, from the Buckingham Advertiser, neatly explains this celebration.

Though plunged into a period of uncertainty, for many Scots, in towns and villages across the country, Christmas 1914 provided an opportunity to offer a little joy during a time of adversity at the same time as demonstrating their support for these new arrivals.

On Boxing Day at Rossholm House, in Stepps, a grand residence situated at the corner of Cumbernauld Road and Blenheim Avenue, ‘the Belgian residents were entertained to a substantial Christmas dinner’. The Kirkintilloch Herald reported that the dinner, which was ‘carried through in a first-class style owing to the generosity of a few lady and gentlemen friends in the district’, included ‘turkey and a roast’, sweets, fruits, toys and gifts. Following the dinner, a number of Belgians in attendance ‘entertained the company by singing Belgian national songs’ and, in traditional Scottish style, the event concluded with a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne (Kirkintilloch Herald, 30 December 1914, p.5). In neighbouring Motherwell, but this time on Christmas Eve, ‘the Belgian refugees housed in the cottages adjoining the Poorhouse were entertained to an excellent supper, concert and dance’. The event was attended by Peter Graham, convener of the House Committee of the Parish Council, and was made possible ‘through the kindness of an anonymous friend’. As in Stepps, the dinner was peppered with musical accompaniments supplied by the Dalziel Brotherhood Orchestra, who delivered a ‘first-rate’ performance under the leadership of Mr Hodge (Motherwell Times, 1 January 1915, p.8).

Venturing north, efforts were similarly made to help the Belgian refugees celebrate Christmas. In Comrie, ‘local merchants gave the Belgian refugees a splendid Christmas dinner’ while, on Christmas morning, a service was ‘conducted in the Roman Catholic Chapel which was attended by the Belgian refugees and a few others’ (Perthshire Advertiser, 30 December 1914, p.6). In Pitlochry, the ‘lot of the Belgian refugees was brightened by a delightful Christmas entertainment which they were accorded in the Public Hall’. After coffee had been served—‘for they do not drink tea’—the refugees were welcomed to the proceedings by Lady Lunn.

A ‘beautiful Christmas tree’, from which gifts were distributed, bedecked the hall and ‘a programme of games and music’, including the singing of La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem. The anthem was sung by four-year-old Irine Van Hulst who had arrived in Scotland with her father Emile, a shoemaker, and mother Emerentia from Dendermonde in East Flanders, whose arrival was recorded in the Belgian Refugees register. Her father joined her in performing at the dinner, singing an ode to Belgium, ‘the home references in which drew tears to the eyes of some of the refugees as their thoughts were again turned towards their devastated land’. Greetings were despatched from Scotland to Belgium during the evening, a way of maintaining a link to the homeland:

Belgians at Pitlochry round their Christmas tree send their loyal greetings to their two Princes and Princess of the Royal House of Belgium. They are made as happy as possible by the kind of people at Pitlochry, but their hearts are all in Belgium with their own beloved King and Queen (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 24 December 1914, p, 1).

The following year, Belgian children in Glasgow received gifts sent from the United States. However, the generosity of the American donation, which included a shipment of ‘thirty large cases’, presented the Glasgow Corporation’s Belgian Refugee Committee with ‘some difficulty’ as the contents of the cases were ‘not in the main suitable for sending out as Christmas gifts to children’. For the most part, the cases contained clothing which, it was felt, would be ‘impossible’ to distribute to children of ‘various ages without seeing the children’. Instead, the items of clothing were handed over to the Clothing Committee, ‘leaving it to them to distribute the clothing’. Other donated items included ‘one or two tins of condensed milk which it was difficult to see how a child could appreciate’ (The Scotsman, 29 November 1915, p.9).

Happily, for many Belgian refugees in Scotland, Christmas time, though not celebrated in ways they were accustomed to, did not go unmarked and, for some, perhaps only for a short period, the anguish they felt over their distance from home was forgotten.

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