How to spend a family Christmas in Dubai

Having your own festive traditions is what makes Christmas special and unique. We spoke to four Dubai-based families about their holiday plans

Laura McConnon, her husband Craig and young son Max
Laura McConnon, her husband Craig and young son Max
Caroline d’Cunha and husband Melroy
Caroline d’Cunha and husband Melroy
Activities, Festive
Australians, Tanya and Sid King and their two-year-old daughter Tali
Australians, Tanya and Sid King and their two-year-old daughter Tali
Dubai residents Mayla Schattner, her husband Ruprecht and their two daughters Charlotte and Catherine
Dubai residents Mayla Schattner, her husband Ruprecht and their two daughters Charlotte and Catherine

British expats Laura McConnon, her husband Craig and young son Max, like to go all out at Christmas time, but don’t really enjoy the ‘unfestive’ sunshine in Dubai
Laura says:
I am super organized, so I like to prepare things well in advance. Towards the middle of November, I’m already thinking about Christmas, planning what I can organize, make and bake. We made our homemade Christmas cards for the family by November 10 this year, and we will give out the cards a week or so before Christmas.

Max is almost two now, so last year he was too young to know what was going on. This year he wants to be involved in everything, so we will definitely attempt to make our own mince pies.

We will be spending Christmas with family in the UK this year. My sister and I discussed the menu in early November and decided who will be doing what. We have delegated each course to a family member to ensure a stress-free lunch. My mum is as organized as I am. She made the Christmas cake at the end of October!

In the build-up to Christmas, we get involved in all kinds of events. Last year we visited the Elves Tea Party at the Palace Hotel, visited Santa at Wafi, went to the Madinat Market and visited lots of school Christmas fêtes. We loved the one at DESS where Max got to ride a camel and visit Santa! We will be doing all the same things this year, and we are also hoping to visit the Santa Claus and Christmas Adventure theatre show at Ductac.

Christmas Eve is a very busy day in our household. The time is spent preparing vegetables and laying the table for Christmas Day. In the evening, we put homemade mince pies and a glass of milk for Santa as well as a carrot for Rudolph. Once Max is in bed, we’ll assemble all his presents ready for the inevitable early start in the morning. Then my husband and I and our family will all relax and watch a movie with the fire roaring in the background to keep us warm (we will be in the UK this year, so will need it).

Christmas Day is an early start for the whole family. We spend the morning opening presents at home and try not to forget to put the turkey into the oven. We then visit family who live close by and deliver and exchange presents. We are normally back home by 12 noon – around when the turkey usually needs a bit of attention.

We have a very traditional Christmas lunch, with a roast turkey and all the trimmings – lots of it! We always have a starter, which is normally prawn cocktail, and a dessert of two or three choices, one always being a traditional Christmas pudding. We don’t usually eat lunch until around 3pm either. This means we can have a lovely long, relaxing afternoon and evening on the sofa having eaten too much at lunch.

At around 8pm, we get a little peckish again – this is when the cheese board and cold meats make an appearance!

I absolutely love Christmas, but because of the weather here in Dubai, I find it really hard to imagine it being festive. Because we come from the UK, where Christmas is crisp, cold and sometimes white, I have to actually remind myself in my diary to make the Christmas cards, visit Santa and go Christmas shopping! Even after being here five years I still can’t get used to it. Last year we spent Christmas here in Dubai but this year we will be travelling back to the UK. Our childhood memories of Christmas involve the cold weather and open fires which we really missed last year. We are also hoping Max will be able to experience some real snow in the UK!

Caroline d’Cunha and husband Melroy make the most of Dubai’s festivities, with son Nathan and daughter Eden joining in the fun
Caroline says:
Our family starts preparing for Christmas a month before the big day. We begin the proceedings by re-arranging the furniture in our home so that we can fit in our beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

We always stick to a theme colour, which changes every year. This year we’re opting for blue and silver, and this will follow through everything, from the Christmas tree ornaments, to the decorations on the door or the pillow covers that rest on our couch.

For us, decorating the Christmas tree is a family affair that we all get involved with. We have beautiful ornaments that we love unpacking, but the most special things that go up every year on our tree, are our children’s very first booties from when they were tiny newborns.

We also bake the Christmas cake together, which is another highlight of the season. Last but not the least we always enjoy decorating the crib.

Meeting Santa Claus is a big part of our Christmas tradition. Nathan gets very excited about that bit! My husband Melroy comes home from work early and we all head off to Wafi Mall right after lunch. This is something we’ve done since both the children were babies.We always make sure we get in the queue early, otherwise it can be a very long wait. We love Wafi at Christmas because they always go all out with the decorations, and there is a new theme every year. We love getting our picture taken with Santa too!

By Christmas Eve, we are literally all buzzing with excitement. The day is spent making final, festive preparations, and in the evening, we put on our very best clothes and head out for midnight mass. It’s very late by the time we get home, but for us, the fun is just beginning. We stay up and eat Christmas sweets, friends come over and celebrate – and, of course, the children put out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.

After a very short night, Christmas Day usually arrives with our children jumping into our bed to wake us up. They are always desperate to see the tree and find out if Santa has left them anything. The sound of the paper tearing – even if it’s in the early hours of the morning – is all part of our family Christmas and we love it! After all the happy screaming is over with, we head to the family crib for a small prayer and then go out to our close family and friends homes to wish them happy Christmas. Lunch usually takes place in our friends’ homes or ours. Each family brings in a traditional dish appropriate for the season.

My mum, who lives in India, always takes great pride in preparing her famous Christmas pudding. She ripens the fruit by soaking it for a month. This is something we always do too now. We always invite our friends over for the day because not everyone has family with them in Dubai to share Christmas with. After all, sharing and giving, as well as love, joy and laughter, is what it’s all about.

Dubai definitely has a good dose of the Christmas spirit. It’s very festive here. Every single mall is beautifully decorated, so you just can’t help but feel Christmassy. I also love the fact that there are so many people with different backgrounds and cultural beliefs here, yet everyone still gets into the spirit of things. We love spending Christmas in Dubai, with our family and friends.

Australians, Tanya and Sid King and their two-year-old daughter Tali, are used to celebrating Christmas in the middle of summer – so Dubai is a home from home
Tanya says:

Well, I like to think I start preparing for Christmas early, but the reality is I’m always rushing around on Christmas Eve! In mid-November, I make my fruit mince and leave it to marinate for a couple of weeks before inviting over a group of girls to bake mince pies. We’ve also always done a quirky Christmas card photo to put a smile on all the rellies’ faces back home. We still send cards to all our friends and family around the globe, we love to receive them too, but each year we seem to get less and less – sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one still sending them! So, you have to get in early with those. I start in mid-November, searching for the craft idea and then we start to make them. This year, we’re turning our daughter’s footprints into Christmas trees! When my mum comes from Australia for Christmas she brings over the traditional Christmas pudding, made by my grandma. But when she doesn’t come we usually eat berries and ice cream for dessert.

Since we had our daughter, a visit to Santa in the mall is a pre-requisite. I frame the photos and put them away each year with the Christmas decorations and then the last year’s photo forms part of the next year’s display. It’s cute to see her face and reaction to Santa. At two, she is still terrified of him! We leave it to friends to throw the traditional pre-Christmas party and this year I’m organizing a Christmas one for Tali and her friends! We go to the Radisson Blu in Deira for the traditional gingerbread house making and a visit from Santa. The kids just love it. We start listening to Christmas carols in the car and at home!

On Christmas Eve, it’s time to put the finishing touches to my food preparation. I buy all the seafood, cook and bake and make a toast that Christmas Day is almost here.

On Christmas Day, the adults are as excited as the kids. We wake up and give presents, have a cooked breakfast and spend the morning talking on Skype. For lunch we are lucky to have our best friends from Australia also living here, so we go to their house and exchange more presents, and eat seafood all afternoon, followed by a traditional Christmas lunch, which happens sometime around 4pm! It’s just a lovely day for remembering how much we love each other and how lucky we are to have this great life. The most exotic thing we eat is oysters and then it’s just traditional roast turkey and veggies.

Christmas is more relaxed here in Dubai as there are less people to cater for. In Australia, there are nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, grandparents. I feel there is a lot more pressure in Australia, whereas here in Dubai, it’s a bit cooler and we are more relaxed as it’s just us and our good friends the Halis. We can focus more on spending time with each other. I know my Mum loves coming here for Christmas and skipping all the hullabullo in Oz. But, it’s that one day of course when you always miss the big extended family and having 50 people in your house!

Dubai residents Mayla Schattner, her husband Ruprecht and their two daughters Charlotte and Catherine, aged five and two, spend Chrsitmas in their home countries – namely Germany and the Philippines. They enjoy combining their families’ different Christmas traditions
Mayla says:

In the Philippines, we start preparations very early by decorating the house and putting up the Christmas tree at the start of November. We start preparing special foods and handmade cards in early December. Around December 15 (the last two weeks of Advent) there is a special mass at 4am every morning. After church, we buy Christmas snacks called bibingka and puto bungbong, which are small rice cakes.

In Germany, it’s very different. Everything starts on the first day of Advent – the fourth Sunday before Christmas. We put up a wreath with four candles, and light one every week until Christmas. The tree is put up only on Christmas Eve and the children must not see it before the actual celebrations of Christmas begin. Also, the children have advent calendars. We bake (or buy – time depending) gingerbread and special cookies. Our Christmas cake is also baked about three weeks prior to Christmas. According to an old family recipe, it needs to be ‘aged’ in a cool room to bring out the festive flavours.

In our house, we try to combine the traditions from our different cultures.

We put up the tree and decorations in our house early (December 1) and let the kids enjoy decorating it. We also put up an advent calendar and we buy or make gingerbread. We also take the kids to the malls to see Santa and the decorations. In Dubai, the traditions of Christmas are more like the way we do things in the Philippines and the US. But in Germany, Santa is called St Nikolaus and comes on December 5 or 6.

We have been in the UAE for four- and-a-half years, and have so far spent every Christmas in our home countries, alternating between Germany and the Philippines, and following the local traditions accordingly.

In the Philippines on Christmas Eve, we prepare the food, and buy gifts for the Christmas Day party. At 10pm we go to church, and after that, the party starts with a special dinner. After dinner, we have some games and then exchange and open gifts. It’s also traditional to have fireworks and champagne. The party lasts well into the early hours of Christmas day. For lunch on Christmas Day, we just continue eating the leftovers of the previous night, and for dinner either we have a good meal at home or we go to a restaurant, if we can find a decent one which is not closed.

A Filipino tradition is that all relatives gather at the grandparents’ home, or if they have passed away, at the place of the oldest sibling. Again some games are played and lots of food is prepared.

In Germany, it’s quite different. There’s a Christmas Eve play for the children at 4pm. After that, we light the candles on the tree and let the kids into the room to have their presents, which have been placed under it. At around 7pm, the family has dinner together. Typically no meat is served, and we eat fish or lobster as the main course. We also have an open log fire and, if it has snowed recently, the kids may build a snowman in the garden. On Christmas Day, the family lunch is the most important event. Traditionally a goose is served. In the afternoon, once it is dark outside, we light the candles again and have some of the cake and cookies with coffee or tea.

As we usually go to our home countries, being in UAE has not really affected our way of celebrating Christmas. But one day we will try to find out how it is here.

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