ABU DHABI // On an unassuming block in the centre of the capital yesterday, set apart from the traffic, bustle and normality of the rest of the city, the air buzzed with Christmas spirit.
In Santa Claus hats, suits and saris, worshippers streamed towards St Joseph’s Cathedral where 20 Christmas masses were celebrated in 12 languages.
The car park was transformed into a market, with traders selling clothing and food. Families and friends posed for photographs in front of a large Christmas tree, and others knelt to pray.
“Christmas means everything to us,” said Sujan Rodrigues, 40, from India. “It is a time of reflecting on your life, your family.”
For those who have made Abu Dhabi their home, the day was filled with laughter.
“Even though we have no family here, we are happy,” said Lily Callorina, 37, from the Philippines.
Ms Callorina came to the church with Nanette, 37, and Mary, 56. The three Filipinas are maids with the same family. Christmas was a chance for the women to renew their friendship. Ms Callorina and Nanette knew each other as children in the Philippines, and Mary has worked for the family for 36 years.
“We are happy because we can see each other,” Ms Callorina said, as the three posed for mobile-phone photographs.
Marivic Tiamzon, 44, from the Philippines, said her family and friends gathered each year for a party on Christmas Eve. They hold a potluck dinner with gifts and games.
“We were six families in total,” said Ms Tiamzon, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for nine years.
“This is the tradition we’ve been doing the past four years. And we are scheduled to attend mass together. After the mass we go to see a movie.”
Ms Tiamzon arrived at church with her 15-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, who was visiting from college.
For some celebrating the holiday far from home, it was bittersweet.
“For me it’s sad,” said Sarika Lall, 31, from Trinidad, the mother of a five-month-old baby. “This is my first baby, so he’s away from family. It’s difficult.”
Her friend, Mario Carrera, 39, also from Trinidad, said it felt different to celebrate the holiday in the UAE.
“It’s not as social,” said Mr Carrera, who has been in Abu Dhabi for a year. “If you’re not in a group, it’s kind of difficult.”
“One of the things is to be with family,” Ms Tiamzon said. “It’s a birthday celebration for us – Jesus Christ’s birthday.”
Michel Kanaan, 34, from Lebanon, agreed that Christmas was a time for family to gather.
“Reflective thinking, care, harmony, joy,” he said. “Also having social responsibility for making donations to needy people.
“It’s a time for … removing hatred, unpleasant memories, forgiving.”
In Jordan, you can “feel it around you” when the holiday arrives, said Omar Hijazin, 44, a Jordanian expatriate who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 12 years.
The white fog that hovered over the capital early on Christmas morning almost made it look like a snowy Christmas scene, Mr Hijazin joked. Then he stepped outside and felt the distinctly un-Christmas-like humidity.
Mr Hijazin does what he can to foster Christmas spirit in his children. His family celebrated on Christmas Eve with a turkey dinner, dancing and gifts.
“We try our best from memories of Christmas when we were young to pass it on,” he said.