Tens of thousands of Christians flocked to churches across the UAE this morning to celebrate Christmas.
At St. Andrew’s, the oldest Anglican church in Abu Dhabi, hundreds gathered for a family-oriented service on Christmas day morning. Children were invited to the front of the church to lead the congregation with the first verse of the carol Away in a Manger.
A nativity play featuring an overworked inn-keeper served as a reminder to appreciate the wonders of daily life – a theme of the Christmas service.
“I think we’re in danger of living a life where we live in a bubble, a cultural bubble, and now in a digital bubble,” said Rev Canon Andrew Thompson, chaplain of the church, after the service.
“We’re communicating more than ever before, but we’re more lonely than ever before. I want to encourage people to remember God created us to be relational beings, to relate to one another and relate to God and not forget that. In 2018, we really should work hard to build closer relationships with our families, with our work colleagues and to make space for one another.”
It was a poignant message for those expatriates pressured to work long hours.
Benon Ruranga, a taxi driver from Uganda, took time off his shift to attend the Christmas service. Mr Ruranga works seven days a week. The service will be the only time he dedicates to celebrations this year. “If I spend an hour without being on the road looking for customers, it’s a big loss to me,” he said. “But if I’m at the church, I feel comfortable because I know I’m serving God.”
Swapna Chacko, 45, and her husband Dr Joseph Simon, 50, attended the service with their two children. After nine years in the capital, the UAE now feels like home at Christmas. “There is such love around, you can see that,” said Ms Chacko, who is originally from Kerala.
“I mean we miss home, but it makes up for it here,” said Dr Simon.
In pictures: Christmas Eve celebrated in the UAE's historic church
UAE Portrait of a Nation: Bishop relishes role in region
Science has discovered the rules of Christmas giving – and we break every one of them
Last night, an estimated 16,000 Catholics gathered at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi to attend traditional Christmas Eve masses.
It was an emotional service for those celebrating away from home. Many came directly from work to attend the open-air service, wearing suits, scrubs, even jeans and superman T-shirts.
Father Troy de los Santos asked that Christmas return people to their families.
At Christmas, he said, people “exchange not only gifts, but love, understanding and forgiveness and this is what Christmas is all about. May the little Jesus lead us back to our own family. Maybe some of you are lost, you lost your families, you lost your children, I don’t know. This Christmas, let Jesus Christ lead us all back to where we belong. We are all God’s children.”
The congregation prayed for the UAE, its Rulers and those in Yemen.
Worshippers photographed themselves in front of the crèche to send to loved ones at home. Others grabbed a quick bite to eat from an impromptu market set up outside the gates of the church compound. Trees were strung with parol paper stars, a Filipino Christmas tradition that represents the Star of Bethlehem.
Many shed silent tears as hymns filled the night.
For Mildred Marquez, a domestic worker, it was a particularly special Christmas. Domestic workers like Ms Marquez are not usually given days off work outside of the employer’s home. Three days before Christmas Eve, her employer surprised her by suggesting that she take the day off for mass. She said it was her first opportunity to attend a Christmas Eve mass in six years.
“We are working for a local person and we don’t have any days off,” said Ms Marquez, 37, who is from the Philippines. “We are very thirsty for the church. We didn’t even ask for a day off, but suddenly they said you have been with us for many years and we trust you. It feels amazing.”
There were 24 services hosted on Christmas Day between 4am and 8.30pm. The services were held in Malayalam, English, French, Konkani, Arabic, Korean, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Urdu, Tamil, Sinhala and Tagalog.