Feature Planning Christmas in one place can be stressful, but travelling over the holidays requires military precision.
Double the trouble
For the first time in five years, we are going to the UK for Christmas. Excitement is building. Cold peppery air, roaring log fires, carol singers ? And difficult questions like "But, mummy, how will Father Christmas know where to leave our presents?" I hadn't contemplated all the logistics of having Christmas away from home with young children, and when I started asking friends how they had managed it, I uncovered planning a military strategist would have been proud of.
Kate and Mike Smith, who have lived in the UAE since 2005, go back to the UK to spend Christmas with Kate's family every year, taking with them their two daughters, Bethan, nine, and Ella, seven. They had lots of tips to share (all names have been changed to protect the Santa-related innocence of the children involved). First, don't miss out on the Christmas build-up before you go: "The tree goes up pretty early, much earlier than I would have put it up in the UK. Then the girls write their letters to Santa explaining that they are going to the UK, but that he should only deliver to Abu Dhabi as we can't carry stuff home," Kate says.
"Last year Bethan cunningly drew a map for Santa to deliberately confuse him so he would end up delivering to Abu Dhabi and the UK. I was worried. Did he have to deliver to both places or could we get away with one?" She explains that if the girls are getting big items for Christmas, then Father Christmas would normally deliver these to Abu Dhabi so they were waiting for them when they came home. The smaller items would be delivered in the UK. This means that packing presents an extra set of challenges. "We have to be seen to take partly empty suitcases, to bring back what gets delivered to the UK," she added.
Last year, the night the family left Abu Dhabi required careful planning and subterfuge. Once the girls were in bed, Kate brought down the presents and hid them behind the sofa. When the taxi arrived "we carried the girls outside, past the Christmas tree with nothing underneath it", she says. With the girls safely in the taxi, Mike darted back inside and hurled the Christmas presents under the tree to the sounds of Kate's hissed whispers of "arrange them nicely", before tearing outside and jumping into the waiting cab.
The year before had been slightly more relaxed as Kate had gone back with the girls earlier, leaving Mike a few days to Christmas-ify the house. "Apart from the big ones, all the presents were wrapped. All Mike had to do was put them neatly under the tree," she says. The night before he flew, it was all going swimmingly. Presents were under the tree; bags were packed. Then Mike started putting together the desk Santa was bringing for Bethan, only to realise it was a two-person job.
A perennial question to be fielded in a UAE Christmas is "But, mummy, we haven't got a chimney. How is Santa going to get in?". Kate's answer is that he comes down the internal courtyard and through the French windows. At our villa, he lands on the roof and I leave the roof door unlocked for him. In Kate's parents' house, Father Christmas usually leaves footprints in flour from the chimney to the tree (helped by Mike's size 10 wellies). But not this year: "My mother has had new carpets put down."
I never thought that I would miss the huge commercialisation of Christmas that one witnesses in the UK, the US and most of Europe, but I now find that without it I am horribly late sending my cards and a last-minute wonder with the shopping. Kate has noticed another side effect of the pre-Christmas build-up in the UK. "Last year, Bethan was not convinced about Santa, but when we got to the UK, it was so Christmassy everywhere, and they got so into it, that any doubt has been put to bed for a while," she says.
For some, Christmas can be fraught with dealing with family expectations. Who do you spend Christmas Eve with? And Christmas Day? Pity the poor families who, trying to appease all camps, spend most of the holidays on the road. Last Christmas, Jenny Jones, her husband, Philip, and two young boys, decided to avoid any angst and spent Christmas at the Evason Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand. A similar degree of planning went in to ensuring a smooth and enjoyable Christmas for Tom, then six, and James, then three.
"Before we left we put up a couple of Christmas ornaments and the Christmas cards, but no tree because we usually get a real one. I had been organised and sent off all my cards and presents at the end of November," Jenny recalls. She had chosen the hotel carefully to make sure there was a good kids' club with plenty of Christmas activities laid on. She also prepared the children for their different Christmas. "I told them that this year we were meeting Santa in Thailand. They were fine about it, not phased at all. We did a countdown to going on holiday and another to Christmas. We took our advent calendars with us."
The boys even left a note for Father Christmas in Abu Dhabi which said: "See you in Thailand!" Luckily, the hotel's kids' club did a great build up to Christmas Day. "They made Christmas cookies, decorated Christmas trees as a competition, and did all sorts of cutting, pasting and painting," Jenny says. On Christmas Eve, Tom and James put a plate of cookies and some milk for Father Christmas, and carrots for Rudolph, outside the hotel room door. Their stockings had been hung on the wardrobe doors, and, in the morning, each boy had six small presents which they had asked for before they left Abu Dhabi.
The hotel also offered a big Christmas dinner, with a choir singing carols. There were games, competitions and a disco for the children, but best of all for Jenny "no cooking for me. It took all the stress out of Christmas - what we would do, who with and where. It was so much easier being away. I would definitely do it again." When the family returned to Abu Dhabi, Jenny distracted the boys by getting them to unpack their new toys. Meanwhile, Philip ran upstairs and put their bigger presents out on their beds, together with a note from Santa saying: "There were too many presents to take to Thailand, so I left the rest here."
"The boys tore into them straight away. They thought it was great - they got two Christmases," Jenny fondly remembers. And so, my Christmas tree went up last week. Notes have been written to Father Christmas explaining where to deliver the presents this year and I have done nearly all my shopping online. Now I just have to dig out those thermals.