When was Christmas first celebrated in Abu Dhabi?
The remains of a 7th century Nestorian monastery have been discovered on Sir Bani Yas Island, but, without delving too deeply into the complexity of Nestorian theology, the birth of Christ was unlikely to have been marked there in any way that modern Christians would recognise.
Instead, almost certainly it would have been exactly 60 years ago this December, in the concrete house of unprepossessing design shown in this photograph.It stood on what was then the beach, not far from the Capital Garden Park on Sultan Bin Zayed the First Street.
This was the home of Tim and Susan Hillyard and their two-year-old daughter Deborah, the first Western expatriates to live in Abu Dhabi. Tim Hillyard was responsible for setting up the off-shore oil exploration base and, unusually for those times, his family accompanied him. He is standing outside the house in this image.
Mrs Hillyard later wrote about her experiences in Before the Oil. On Christmas morning she recalls her surprise at being greet with “Happy Christmas” by a local fisherman, who explained that in Islam it is known as Eid al Milad - the feast of the birth.
The Hillyards dined on fresh fish and a cabbage flown in to Sharjah from Bahrain and sent by road down the coast. Later in the day, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, and two of his brothers arrived to add their greetings. Mrs Hillyard had gathered enough ingredients to make a Christmas cake, which she served to the Royal party with coffee and soft drinks.
That mutual respect between Christianity and Islam continued with the first service held at what is now the British embassy in December 1958, and the establishment of St Andrew’s Church on the Corniche using land donated by the Ruler in 1966.
In 1984, Sheikh Zayed made land available for the current location of the church in Al Mushrif. This week will see many Christian denominations celebrate Christmas across the seven emirates with a universal message: Peace and goodwill to all mankind.
* James Langton