x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sweet tradition for sweet young

The festive occasion of Hag al Leila is more than an exciting time for the nation's children to dress in colourful new clothes, sing-songs and collect chocolate from neighbours. The celebration also teaches them the customs of their country, say parents.

Youngsters mingle with their families to celebrate Hag al Leila at Mirdif City Centre.
Youngsters mingle with their families to celebrate Hag al Leila at Mirdif City Centre.

DUBAI // Dressed in a new ghutra and kandura, 12-year-old Adel Al Merri beams with pride as he pours coffee for visitors from a dallah, or coffee pot.

Emirati girls show off their traditional dresses of red, purple, teal and fuschia, and some of them wear accessories such as gold headdresses and necklaces.

Al Ayala, a UAE band that derives its name from the traditional stick dance, engages the audience with song and dance.

Treasure chests and baskets overflow with cloth bags filled with sweets that the children distribute to all those who visit the decorated stand for the Hag al Leila celebration at Mirdif City Centre.

The festive occasion for Emiratis falls on the 15th day of Shaban, the eighth month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

In the UAE, the event also signals the coming of Ramadan, as children visit the homes of family and friends, wearing traditional clothes and singing national songs. They carry small tote bags that adults are expected to fill with an array of sweets, nuts and money.

"On Friday afternoon after the afternoon prayers, I am going to visit family and friends," Adel says. "I normally collect about two bags of sweets."

Organised by the Ministry of Social Affairs in Dubai, the event on Wednesday night at Mirdif City Centre is part of the ministry's summer programme, and aims to honour a tradition that has been passed through generations of Emiratis.

"For us, this celebration is part of our summer programme, which focuses on social, educational and cultural issues," says Fatma Al Falasi, the director of the social development centre at the Ministry of Social Affairs. "The occasion of Hag al Leila was preserved by previous generations and is a happy event for children to rejoice and usher in Ramadan with excitement ... we encourage them to wear traditional clothes."

Ms Al Falasi explains that the aim of the programme is to teach children the significance of the customs, so they are imprinted in their minds. The children learn the songs that their parents once sang, and they can now teach others about their heritage.

"In the past, homes were very close to each other and every child would be found out in the neighbourhood. Nowadays, parents have to take the initiative and encourage their children to take part," Ms Al Falasi says.

At the Mirdif City Centre event, Hana Sayed, a 9-year-old Emirati girl, shows off her purple dress and says she plans to celebrate with her friends today.

"I have fun collecting sweets with my friends and siblings. We visit neighbours' homes and they fill our bags with candy and chocolates," Hana says.

Fatima Al Muhairy, 30, an Emirati mother, says she has bought her four daughters identical red dresses to celebrate Hag al Leila.

Her eldest daughter Shamma, 7, says: "I'm going to get my hair done and wear henna on my hands. I get a big bag of sweets as well."

Umm Hassan, 50, an Emirati mother, says the tradition is still very much alive, but due to the increasing distances between homes, and because of the hot summer months, children cannot always walk on their own to neighbours' homes.

"We prepare special bags for our children made of cloth, buy different kinds of sweets, and dress them up in new clothes. Nowadays, we drive them to family and friends' homes since it is too hot and the distances are farther than they once used to be ... they are always so excited and happy to celebrate," she says.

Malallah Ahmad, 47, says his family decorates their home in Al Quoz with lights, and neighbours in their area do the same.

His 10-year-old daughter, Maryam, who wears an orange outfit with gold shoes, says: "Other children come to our house and we give them sweets. I'm taking part in the summer programme and I came here to teach other children about Hag al Leila."

Keen to demonstrate what he will do on Friday afternoon when he visits neighbours, Yousef Al Hashemi, 12, begins to sing: "A'atoona hag al leila," which means, "Give us sweets for tonight".

"It is a good thing for a child to know everything about the customs and traditions of their country," Ms Al Falasi says.