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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

Prosit Neujahr!

Updated: Dec 31

A new year is upon us – at least the Western new year, as a matter of convention. Other new years start at different times of year.


The Gregorian new year, coming shortly after the winter solstice, follows Christianity’s most important new beginning: the birth of Christ. When the early Christian church set this birthday to overlap with existing Roman and other pagan rituals around the shortest days of the year, the birth of God’s own son and the birth of a new year became coupled. And so, Christmas is also the time of our new calendars, new resolve, and New Year’s resolutions - or my preferred annual exercise: New Year's revelations. Christian holiday cards are both merry and happy, one for the Christmas season (Merry Christmas!) and one for turning the page to another twelve months (Happy New Year!) – linguistically, another testament to convention.


Sayyida Salme grew up on Islamic time, with each day marked by five daily prayers and each year cycling the two main Islamic eid festivals, as described in fond and reverent detail in her Memoirs, as well as a different new year, all based on lunar time. She also grew up on Swahili time, which leaned on Islamic markers. The first day of the Swahili new year, Siku ya Mwaka, is also the first day of the Islamic new year. We know this was an important holiday because Sayyida Salme escaped from the island on the August eve of that day in 1866, when many Zanzibaris walked into the ocean to celebrate.

A union with my beloved would have been impossible in my homeland, so I naturally harbored the wish to leave the island quietly. A first attempt in this direction failed. Soon, however, a better opportunity presented itself. Through the assistance of Mrs. S., a befriended wife of the English doctor and Consular representative at the time, the commander of the English warship Highflyer, a Mr. P., picked me up one night in a boat. Once I was on deck, the ship immediately released steam and headed north. (Memoirs, p 202)

Her transition to the West was a full-on culture shock, including temporally jarring. Suddenly gone was the daily rhythm with moments of reflection and connection with God, replaced instead by the busy schedules of hectic Western civilization. As for the new year, the Gregorian changing of the guard does not figure much in her Letters to the Homeland, only once when she describes encountering her drunk maid on New Year’s Eve, another shock to her sensibilities. 

On New Year’s Eve, I had a pretty shock when confronted with a totally drunk servant girl. According to the usual German custom, my husband had prepared the indispensable New Year’s punch for himself and his brothers, of which our servants each received a glassful. For my part, the first sip did nothing for me, as with all strong drinks, so I completely refrained. When I wanted to head to bed as usual at ten o’ clock, I rang for the servant girl, for her to light the upstairs. She let me wait an unusually long time, so I went into the corridor to call her up from the basement. At long last, she dragged her way up the stairs and slurred several times: “Madam, Madam!” Only a few more stairs to reach me—and this punch-indulging character collapsed into a heap. Since I had thus far fortunately never had such direct exposure to a drunkard and only heard talk of such godless people, which is what we call them, I let out a noteworthy scream, causing my husband to rush out of the dining room to me. From then on, I took note of how much punch every servant girl could bear on New Year’s Eve, having learned from this experience. What do you think about such a thirst and even more, such a throat? (Letters, p 36-37)

We do, however, still have one of her holiday cards, which I found among the many papers her son Rudolph had collected and left behind, amidst all else in the Special Collection at the Leiden University Libraries (under Or. 27.135 D8). Her face is pasted onto a figure dressed up in a fancy seasonal fur coat – quite ironically, if you have read the story on page 35 of the Letters. I discovered the card at the end of 2022, not the beginning, exactly one year too late - one hundred years later - for me to recycle it as my own. But I am happy to share it here now: Prosit Neujahr!

(c) Andrea Emily Stumpf, December 31, 2023


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