x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

No sleigh bells, plenty of cheer

Christmas in the Emirates is a unique experience and many Christians celebrated it with family and friends in UAE style.

Amanada Milligan tries to place a Christmas cap on the head of a camel on Jumeirah Beach, while she and her husband were strolling on the beach after Christmas dinner.
Amanada Milligan tries to place a Christmas cap on the head of a camel on Jumeirah Beach, while she and her husband were strolling on the beach after Christmas dinner.

Only in the UAE would a couple finish their Christmas turkey and then bump into a camel. That was how it went for Amanda Milligan and her husband, who greeted the beast of burden during a stroll on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai. "We came to walk off some Christmas dinner," she said. In Abu Dhabi, Khair Murtada, a Lebanese Muslim housewife, went to Marina Mall for some last-minute shopping, not wanting to show up empty-handed at a dinner later in the evening.

"I have Christian friends and colleagues who celebrate. During Eid our Christian friends wish us well and celebrate with us." Samir Ghurayeb, a Christian who is also from Lebanon, works the rest of the year as a senior supervisor at White Cat Laundry. "Christmas is a time my wife and I devote entirely to our children," he said. "We went out for dinner to Pizza Hut on Christmas Eve then went home immediately afterwards as the children were excited and wanted to see what Santa brought them this year"

Christmas Day was spent going to the mall for a meal before returning home to watch a movie together. Many Emiratis had visited Gulf Greetings, said Connie Dingle, a Filipina sales associate. "They have been very warm with me wishing me a merry Christmas," she said. Jason Mirador, a Filipino sales assistant at the Marina Mall Sweets Factory stand, said Emirati children were among his best customers.

"Emirati children surprised me when they told me merry Christmas," he said. "When I asked them how they knew about Christmas, and especially that it was today, they told me that their nannies had been telling them about it. They understand that to Christians and Catholics, Christmas is like Eid." Indian Christians in Dubai started their celebrations by attending a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, followed by parties with families and friends.

Thousands of people gathered at the St Mary's Church in Dubai on Wednesday night for midnight mass. Roads leading to the church were clogged with traffic. "The turnout is phenomenal and probably more than ever seen before," said Elvis D'Souza, a resident of Dubai, who attended the mass with his family. "It was exciting to have so many people together on this night. However, we had to wait a long time to drive in and out of the place."

Krishna Nair and her family, who are Hindu, sang carols and opened gifts at their apartment in Bur Dubai. "I have been celebrating Christmas all my life," she said. "Back in India we had a lot of Christians around and we always went out for Christmas dinner. It's winter, and just the joy of the season and the festival is the main reason why we celebrate it here every year." To some, the celebrations felt subdued because of the economic slowdown.

"There is a feeling of depression as many have lost their jobs around the world," said Edwin D'mello, another Dubai resident. "So, many have preferred to stay at home." Christmas could not come soon enough for some Filipinos. Ann Bamba, a 34-year-old mother of two, said she started decorating her Christmas tree in early September. "Being away from home, we keep the Christmas spirit alive in our own little way," she said.

In the Philippines, families flock to churches before dawn from Dec 16 for nine traditional masses - or simbang gabi. They culminate with the misa de Gallo, or midnight mass, on Dec 24. Mrs Bamba and her husband Rommel, 38, attended the 8pm mass with their children, Rochelle, six, and Andrei, four. "We have been in the UAE for eight years," Ann, 34, said. "We've been in Dubai for six years and Abu Dhabi for two years and I really miss the authentic Filipino food served during Christmas, children singing Christmas carols in Tagalog, and the dawn masses."

Afterwards, the family went to a birthday party in Musaffah. At midnight they all gathered around the dining table for a traditional, if scaled down, Christmas Eve feast. This year, their niche buena consisted of spaghetti, fried chicken and a fruit salad. "It's simple," Ann said. "But we tend to prepare an elaborate niche buena back home in Iligan CitHi Beny." rruiz@thenational.ae pmenon@thenational.ae