I’m not Christian but having grown up in Kolkata, India, and studied in a ‘convent school’, I’ve many fond memories of Christmas. The approach of December meant Christmas break from school. Frequent walks around beautifully lit and bustling Park Street. Make it a point to grab my mother’s favourite chicken patties and brownies from Flury’s, an iconic tearoom. Multiple visits to New Market were non-negotiable to buy decorations for our Christmas tree and endless parcels of plum cakes from Nahoum’s, a Jewish bakery.
Some years I’d tag along with our Catholic family friends for the midnight mass to St. Paul’s Cathedral on December 24. But I must admit that more than the mass, I used to look forward to the after-mass ice-cream session at Hobby Centre, an old-time favourite dessert place much before the likes of Cookie Jar came along. I’d hardly sleep that night in anticipation of Christmas Day morning when I’d find my gifts and then dress up to go out for lunch.
Since moving to the UAE almost a decade ago, I’ve sorely missed doing these small yet extremely fond things around Christmas. Over the years I’ve realised that friends from different parts of the world have similar fond memories of how they celebrated Christmas in their home countries. So, this time I spoke with two UAE-based expatriate families about their fond memories of Christmas and how they celebrate the occasion with family and friends over good food while spreading festive cheer.
For us Christmas is a wonderful mix of cuisines and cultures
For this UAE-based German-Filipino household of Mario and Ricthell Becker, Christmas is all about reminiscing fond memories of food and festivities. Having lived outside of their home countries for over 13 years now, the couple like to cook their favourite food at home except the traditional Christmas Stollen which they buy from a store. Stollen is a traditional German bread made of nuts, spices and dried or candied fruit, coated with powdered sugar and marzipan. It is eaten during the Christmas season and hence called Christstollen in Germany.
Being passionate bakers, Christmas cookies and fruit cakes by the Beckers are now a hit among their friends who gather in their backyard frequently around this time of the year to enjoy these festive foods.
Recollecting fond memories of Christmas, Mario said, “Back in the days when I grew up in Germany, Christmas would be our favourite time of the year. We would stuff ourselves with Christmas cookies, chocolates, traditional sweets and fruits. We loved to dress up in our favourite clothes for lunch at my grandmother’s place on December 24. Lunch would mainly comprise roast duck with red cabbage and salt potato with Stollen to be had post-lunch, while dinner would be sausages or roulade and potato salad or dumplings.”
While Ritchell’s memories of Christmas is all about her family gathering around Noche Buena or festive food comprising roasted meat, queso de bola-cheese, hamon or ham, fruit salad and an array of sweets. “In the Philippines we adore Christmas time. We love to put up our Christmas tree and decorate our homes months ahead of Xmas. When we were growing up in the Philippines, we would start Christmas shopping from October. In fact, now it is a popular joke about us Filipinos who are all set for Christmas even before December arrives,” she joked.
“The best part of our celebrations is Simbang Gabi or dawn mass from December 16 to 24. We try to complete the 9-dawn mass as a religious belief that it will grant our wishes. Then starts the actual Christmas festivities marked by carolling with friends and families. December 24 is a day spent with family. We wait to attend the midnight mass, thereafter welcoming Christmas Day to savour on Noche Buena. But above all, my fondest memories are of excited visits to the homes of our godparents (Ninang and Ninong) on Christmas Day to collect our Christmas gifts,” she added. Now her daughter, 18 years, and son, 17 years, who live in the Philippines also celebrate Christmas in a similar manner.
While talking about Christmas, how can we not mention Santa?
So, Mario shared how Santa Claus passed by on Christmas eve to handover gifts to them “but we first had to either sing a song or recite a poem”. He also shared a little family tradition where Mario’s father would bring out the Christmas tree decoration on the weekend before December 24. After breakfast the family would gather in the living room to decorate the Christmas tree, but they would not turn on the lights on the tree. “That’s because on returning home on Christmas eve from my grandmother’s place we’d find the Christmas tree lit up and nicely wrapped gifts waiting for us. When my daughter Daniela (now 26 years) was growing up, we introduced her to the same traditions.”
According to him, nothing much has changed even as he moved out of Germany. “Now we do the same food and gift ceremonies at our home with friends, especially when we are not able to travel home for Christmas.
“The only difference is since we have an interesting group of international friends, we end up with a mashup of different dishes to cater to different taste buds. But we still follow the traditional gift exchange ceremony,” Ritchell added.
Our home smells special around Christmas
For UAE-based expatriate Lea Maalouf, Christmas is an occasion that’s always spent at home in Lebanon. “As a child I remember how our home would smell different around Christmas. It was a very comforting smell, something that I never got anywhere else. For me that smell is Christmas. Coupled with the cold weather of Lebanon this time of the year is just perfect.”
Even as Maalouf has lived out of Lebanon for 16 years now, every year, except when she delivered her son, she always goes home to spend Christmas with family. “I’ve two sisters and one brother and every year our families gather in my parents’ home for Christmas. Before the pandemic even our uncles, aunts, cousins and their children would visit, and it would be a really large Christmas party. My cousin Yara Harrak makes a simple yet delicious chocolate cake every year for Christmas when she comes over. That’s something I can’t even think of missing.”
Maalouf recollected how her mother would spend days planning a large Christmas meal consisting of all items that the family loves. For example, French plancha including a variety of cheeses, some cold cuts, olives, dips and breads is a family favourite. “We’ve spent a lot of time in France. While I lived in Paris for many years, my parents would visit at least a few times in a year and one of my sisters is married to a French Lebanese, so our food also has a significant French influence. So much so that we make it a point to bring cheese and foie gras from France for our Christmas plancha.”
Some of the other favourite Christmas food include roasted turkey, quiche, salads and tarts all made by Maalouf’s mother.
Besides food, some of Maalouf’s best memories of Christmas are the decorations and the gift exchange ceremonies. “Our Christmas tree used to be brought out by the first weekend of December,” she reminisced. “Then my mother would start planning the decorations not only for the tree but every year she creates the Christmas crib replicating the Nativity Scene of how Jesus was born. As children we used to help her and now our children assist her. It’s our way of acquainting and involving the next generation with certain special family traditions. My mother keeps the decorations on until beginning of January. Only if someone passes on, we don’t do the decorations. Otherwise, it’s a must-do ritual in our family.”
The ‘Secret Santa’ or gift exchange ceremony is even more special for Maalouf. “My father has a flair for writing. So, every Christmas he would give us handwritten notes with special messages and poems along with our gifts. It’s something that he still does, and every year his note makes me teary eyed,” she shared.
On a lighter note, for the past few years Maalouf has been dressing up as Santa who distributes gifts to the children in the family. It’s an evening to remember when her family home is filled with laughter and festive cheer marked by that special aroma.