Christmas is not a holiday here but nor is it a holiday from the respect for different faiths and traditions that residents of the UAE enjoy all year.
Not going home? Christmas here has lessons of its own
'You shouldn't have any money left in your wallet at Christmas time," one of my relatives used to say. He said it because he was generous, not because he was broke.
I don't know why the sight of my building's Sudanese security guard, picking up his prayer rug, brought the remark to mind. Remembering it, I opened my wallet and gave the security guard its contents. It couldn't have been more than 50 or 60 dirhams but I was happy with myself. As Eid Al Adha and Christmas were two weeks apart that year, it was a holiday season for us both.
Ten days or so later, I was miffed to hear a knock on the door. My wife and I were preparing for a Christmas party: nothing was ready and I didn't expect our guests to arrive so soon. When I opened the door, there was the security guard, holding two boxes of expensive chocolates and a large box of blinking, multi-coloured, lights.
"Merry Christmas" he said, the only English I ever heard him speak. He shook my hand and shut the door. I wonder still why I didn't have him in.
The self-satisfaction I received from giving him money at Eid was gone. So too were any anxieties about Christmas preparations. His wages were a small fraction of mine and yet his gifts were far more valuable than anything I had given him.
The security guard has long since returned to Sudan. But flashing red, green, and blue bulbs have replaced the more traditional, and if my wife is to be believed, more classy, white lights on our Christmas tree. They are a reminder of a time when I saw something new or more clearly, an epiphany.
That experience of "epiphany" was once at the heart of the Christmas season. The tradition of gift-giving on Christmas Day is actually borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the three kings from the East, bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus. But trips to the mall, to every holiday party, and the pressure to get just the right gift for everyone can make epiphanies hard to come by. In fact, the holidays might be the most difficult time to pause, see things fresh, and appreciate the gifts that one has already been given, particularly in the West.
That doesn't mean that I don't miss hearing carols at my church or my mother's sweet potatoes at Christmas dinner. No matter how hard anyone attempts to re-create Christmas in the UAE, it won't be the same. I imagine that for many western expatriates, the holidays may be the most difficult time of year to be without the comfort of family and friends back home.
Yes, Christmas is largely what one makes of it in the UAE. That doesn't mean it lacks epiphanies of its own, which I learned on my first Christmas here. I had only been in the country for a month. Warnings from friends and family "to keep my head down" were still fresh in my mind. Never should I mention my nationality and never, ever, should I talk to anyone about religion.
But when Christmas arrived the most rugged-looking taxi driver was quick with his holiday wishes. Waiting to get cash at the bank, a man in a dishdasha laughed as he instructed me to withdraw enough so that my wife had everything she wanted for Christmas. And of course, I could attend Christmas Mass in Abu Dhabi, where a mosque stands next to Roman Catholic and Coptic churches.
Christmas is not a holiday here but nor is it a holiday from the respect for different faiths and traditions that residents of the UAE enjoy all year. There are few other places that demonstrate so well how religious devotion and religious diversity can stand side by side.
I don't know where I will be spending Christmas next year or ten years from now. But when I finally do return home, I know that celebrating Christmas there will mean something more for having experienced it here. And wherever I may be, my Christmas tree will be adorned with multi-coloured, flashing lights. I hope the memories they evoke will be a gift for many years to come.