Growing up in Saudi Arabia, there were never any outward signs of Christmas, with decorations and the Christmas music kept behind closed doors. But here, in a sign of tolerance, I see Christmas trees in many public places.
More gifts to go around in a multi-faith community
The first Christmas gift I remember getting was a "magic stick".
It was thick, made of wood, and a bit crooked. I was six years old when I got it so I don't know what type of wood it was, but I remember that it smelled nice.
Wrapped in a gold paper under the Christmas tree, my name was written on it. Santa Claus, apparently, had dropped it off when he heard I was visiting my family in Poland. "Santa's elves made this special stick for you because you were a good girl this year," my grandmother told me.
Clearly, it had magic powers, so I used to carry it around with all the time. The one trick I remember doing is pointing to a plate, asking for chocolate to appear. Within minutes, chocolate was on its way from the kitchen. What more proof did I need?
Wherever I went in the world, somehow Santa managed to find us on Christmas. Many times my sister and I would try to catch him in the act, setting boobytraps near the Christmas tree.
In Paris one Christmas Eve, my sister and I placed tiny cars all over the floor and even marbles to make Santa slip up. It never worked, although we did notice that some of the cars were moved into a corner and one of them was cracked as if it had been stepped on.
"A ha! So Santa Claus does exist!" was the obvious conclusion.
In many mixed families like mine, with different religions and nationalities, we make it a point to celebrate all of the holidays in the spirit of union and tolerance. An added dividend is that it is great for the children who receive gifts on both Christmas and Eid.
November was a special month full of holidays for Muslims this year, and December is always special for Christians. For residents in the UAE, we get to enjoy both, regardless of religious affiliation.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, there were never any outward signs of Christmas, with decorations and the Christmas music kept behind closed doors. But here, in a sign of tolerance, I see Christmas trees in many public places. Thankfully, most of them are fake and not one-time sacrifices to the holiday.
Abu Dhabi broke the record this year with the world's most valuable Christmas tree at the Emirates Palace hotel. Its ornaments are beautiful jewels, gold and diamonds worth millions of dirhams. But what is more important than a monetary value is the holiday spirit and spread of good will.
Some of the world's oldest churches can be found in the Middle East. They are common in Lebanon and elsewhere there are some unique examples like the 4th century church in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and the 7th century Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. As one Vatican official told me recently, the oldest Christians in the world originated in this region. So why not extend a hand of friendship by joining them to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ?
There is a downside to all of this holiday cheer, however. Those annoyingly repetitive Christmas carols used to drive me crazy when I lived in Canada. And earlier this week, I had some "elves" in my building who were singing seriously out of tune.
I felt like the infamous Scrooge when I opened the door to complain about the noise. Dressed in Santa Claus hats and pointy shoes with bells, these elves were from the Philippines, collecting donations for gifts to be sent back home to their families. OK, I guess the goal was sweet, but I still think they could use some practice. I grew up listening to choirs of angelic voices, so I am a bit picky.
It's true that Christmas has been commercialised and the holiday is marked by kitsch as much as community spirit. Then again, "Santa" always was a commercial figure crafted in the United States as a marketing tool.
But there is a genuine heart based on St Nicholas, patron saint of children. I still miss receiving gifts from kindly old St Nic, even though I was laying traps to catch him.