One huge advantage of Dubai living is that our kids are exposed to so much cultural diversity. In the wake of Ramadan and Diwali, Christmas gives Christian families a chance to add their own celebration to the eclectic stew.
The word ‘Christmas’ comes from the service the church uses in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ – a story kids in Christian cultures learn from a very early age. Most parents watching the school nativity play will have to wipe away a tear (of emotion or laughter) as they see their offspring, dressed up as angels, shepherds and wise men, wishing baby Jesus a happy birthday.
‘At the heart of the Christian celebration are the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus,’ says Father Stephen Wright, chaplain at Christ Church in Jebel Ali. ‘Most Western children are familiar with the elements of this story, like the appearance of angels, the experiences of Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph, and the wise men who followed the star to find Jesus on the night he was born.’
Many now see the holiday as an excuse to have time off, get together with family and friends, eat and drink way too much and, of course, exchange gifts. While we moan about the stress of Christmas shopping and lament the commercialisation of Christmas, swapping pressies is a major part of the celebration. ‘Just as we give presents at birthdays and other anniversaries, so we give presents to show thanksgiving at Christmas,’ says Wright, minister of the Anglican congregation. For this reason, he says, Christmas is more than just an excuse to give gifts; it’s an entire season of goodwill.
So how do Muslims feel about us foreigners celebrating Christmas in such an unabashed manner? While Muslims don’t consider Jesus as the son of God, they are familiar with the Christmas story. You might be surprised to learn that, like Christians, Muslims believe that Jesus’s mother Mary was a virgin when she conceived and that the angels appeared and spoke with Mary and Joseph. ‘Other features of the Christmas story are familiar to Muslims through the Quran,’ says Wright. ‘They hold a very high opinion of the position of Jesus as a prophet who taught the ways of God.’
In fact, many Muslims embrace the spirit of Christmas. ‘We have Christian friends who always wish us Ramadan Kareem, and in the same way, we like to wish them well on Christmas and Thanksgiving,’ says Maysoon Al Shara, a Jordanian Muslim who has lived in the UAE for seven years. ‘We can all enjoy each other’s holidays without any bad feelings. The Quran says that we should be tolerant of other religions, like Christianity or Judaism, so Christmas is a good time for us to teach our children to be understanding and kind towards people of other religions.’
What about all the secular materialism that’s become so intertwined with Christmas? ‘We’re not offended by the things we see in the shopping malls like Santa’s house and decorations,’ says Al Shara. ‘People should have the freedom to celebrate the way they want.’
Traditions associated with Christmas have varied enormously over the years and depend in large part on your nationality. Russians contributed the nesting babushka dolls, Germans first used the Christmas tree, the British conceived the sending of Christmas cards, and Americans brought us Santa Claus. And you don’t have to be Christian to join in the fun. ‘My nephew loves Christmas, so my sister keeps a tree in the house all year long,’ laughs Al Shara. ‘At Christmas time, she lets her son decorate the tree with ornaments and they put lights all around their house.’
There are many symbols that have become associated with Christmas, and across Dubai you’ll see stars, candles, houses decorated in tinsel, trees and streamers, as well as images of snowmen, Santa and his reindeer, and Mary and baby Jesus.
In the same way Christians can appreciate Ramadan, there are lots of ways Christian kids can share this special time with their non-Christian friends. ‘Just as your children might have received presents at Eid or Diwali, they can now reciprocate by giving their friends Christmas presents or cards,’ suggests Wright. ‘Giving a present isn’t necessarily a statement of religious beliefs; it just means that you are happy to overflowing.’ Wright also suggests inviting friends for Christmas dinner or having a Christmas party by the pool with crackers and Christmas pudding.
‘When it was Ramadan, our neighbours from Egypt invited us to their house for Iftar,’ recalls Jessie Smithson, age seven of Mangrove Village. ‘This year, we’re going to invite them to our house for turkey and show them our Christmas tree and give them presents. I think we should also watch the Christmas movie about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, because that’s my favorite.’
No matter what your faith or how you celebrate Christmas, the season is an excellent time to show friendship and generosity. What better way to cross those cultural divides than with a little festive cheer?