x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Al qahirah: You don't have to celebrate it to enjoy Christmas

As someone who doesn't celebrate the holiday, it's interesting how much part of my culture it has become.

The wheels hit the slippery runway at the Ottawa airport, and the butterflies in my stomach fluttered back to life. I was home for the holidays, and I couldn't wait to scramble half-asleep off the crammed plane and into the arms of my family, who I knew were waiting for me at the end of the baggage claim area. It's been a busy year, and there was nothing more that I needed than to come home and see some familiar faces.

My niece greeted me with huge kisses and cuddles and we both hugged as we followed her dad to the car outside into the -23°C temperature. Welcome to Ottawa. The cold weather in this city is one of its charming characteristics and brings its residents closer - otherwise we'd all go insane. I had just missed a storm, so the snow was piled several feet high on the sides of the highways and roads, and in some places remained unmoved from the fronts of houses where people chose to burrow through alternative exits such as the garage.

It might sound unbearable, but in December and until the middle of January, there is a little something about the city that redeems it of the stark cold and bleak whiteness - Christmas. As someone who doesn't celebrate the holiday, it's interesting how much part of my culture it has become. I don't buy a Christmas tree; I don't stay up baking; I don't buy gifts or attend church. But Christmas is still there - and it's become part of my culture as an observer looking in, with some benefits.

The lights are my favourite part of the season. In a city that can get quite gloomy with the blinding sheets of snow during a storm, or the banks of dirty ice, the glitter of downtown Ottawa and the houses across neighbourhoods give a cheery and expectant feel. There is something joyful about the silly reindeer and snowmen covered in white and red and green lightbulbs on front lawns - otherwise they'd just be covered with layers of cold white stuff, a constant reminder of the bleakness that the winter season has in store.

I also look forward to seeing Christmas trees through people's front windows. True, the season has become a commercial trap, but I do like the crowds at the mall, the kitschy decorations and the craze that takes over people trying to get through their Christmas shopping. I like taking advantage of the sales during the season without the pressure of having to complete a shopping list. When I worked in Canada, I also had the advantage of holidays and the happy-go-lucky attitude of bosses during this time of year, again without the pressure of having to run off and shop some more, worry about budgeting or getting a huge Christmas dinner ready. Most of the time, I'd work during Christmas, taking advantage of the extra holiday pay and also feeling good that I could give my colleagues a break. They could ask to have the holidays off without feeling guilty I was missing out on my own Christmas. There is definitely a sense of oneness during Christmas that you won't feel at any other time of year - everyone's in the same boat trying to get shopping and baking and organising done for the culmination on Dec 25.

It's also a time of year when the best in people comes out - soup drives, volunteering at homeless shelters and clothing drives. The only day that can be a bit boring is Christmas Day itself. With all the stores closed, boring TV carols and services on every channel, and all your friends tied up at home, my family has had to figure out its own traditions for Dec 25. It has usually consisted of a big breakfast and then going to see movies in the afternoon, since the only outlets still open are the cinemas. This year we've had to explain to my three-year-old niece why we don't have a tree or Christmas lights up on our porch like everyone else on our street. We make a big deal out of Eid, with lots of food and presents and friends and lights. But Christmas will always have a special place in our lives with its own traditions. Muslims join in the spirit as well, particularly the youth, who organise drives.

I've been asked before if I feel left out because the whole country is celebrating a holiday that I don't. The answer is no. I just have a different way of looking at it. I think of it as an alternative Christmas. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo