In my family, Christmas means travelling to the UK with my husband and three young kids to spend the holiday with their grandparents.
The song ‘Driving home for Christmas’ is on loop in my mind throughout most of December, and the Santa lists are written and distributed amongst extended family members long before the first day of advent hits.
Staying home for Christmas - which we have only done once in the 9 years we’ve lived in the UAE because I was due to give birth a few days’ later - means either something very good (like a pregnancy), or very bad (like a pandemic) has happened to prevent us from travelling.
This year, we are staying home.
And we are by no means the only ones. Across the UAE, thousands of expat families who celebrate Christmas are having to tweak, adjust and redefine the festivities for their families, for a UAE-based celebration that is the culmination of one of the strangest and most challenging years of our lifetimes.
But, along with the disappointment of cancelled plans and missed family members, many UAE parents are finding that there is joy to be found in an unconventional Christmas. With perfect weather, shopping festivals, and a calendar packed with Winter Wonderlands, pop-up ice rinks, Santa meets, and gingerbread workshops, families are discovering there is many a silver lining to gild the Christmas cumulonimbus that coronavirus has wrought.
Cancelling the trip of a lifetime
For Dubai-based Slovakian mum-of-two, Kat Ballinger, the coronavirus pandemic meant having to cancel a dream holiday that had been two years in the planning. “We were supposed to go to Lapland for Christmas this year, so of course I’m really disappointed that it couldn’t happen,” she says.
Having booked the trip a year ago, the family has had to shift all their hotel and activity arrangements to December 2021. “We are hoping that it will happen next year. Even though I’m really disappointed, the good thing is that the kids didn’t know about it – we were supposed to surprise them just before we went – so at least we haven’t had to break the news to them.”
However, with an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, Kat is concerned about the ‘magic’ aspect of Christmas still being meaningful for her oldest by next year. “I did think this year would be the perfect age for them to go, so I’m going to try very hard to make sure none of the magic of Santa is spoilt by this time next year.”
As a result of the change in plans, Kat says that all of her Christmas holiday activities are a bit last minute. “I really wasn’t in the mood to do anything at first because I was so disappointed, but then I realised I need to make an effort for the kids,” she says. “I’ve decorated everything as usual, including a tree and the fake fireplace that I made last year, and we have done some festive activities. We will be having the usual Slovak food on Christmas Eve, and doing a brunch on Christmas Day. It won’t be the same but we will still celebrate.”
Expat parents compensating for a different kind of Christmas
This year has been the most popular yet for Kim Lowe, who set up the Facebook group ‘Christmas Madness UAE’ six years ago. Dedicated to all things festive, the group sees Christmas-lovers and small business owners swapping tips on festive events and shopping, as well as sharing gift ideas and pictures of families’ decorations. “This year has been busier than ever, with more families staying in the UAE for the holidays because of the pandemic,” says Lowe.
“We are now more than 12,000 members of the Christmas Madness Facebook group, which is getting quite hard to manage with all the posts that have to be approved, as well as the private messages. I think I will need a whole admin team next year!”
With the option of flying to their home countries either out or deemed too risky for many, parents have been compensating with extra decorations, more thoughtful gifts and themed activities to try and make the period as magical as it would have been for their children had they been able to do what they originally planned.
“Christmas this year will be different as we have no family visiting from the UK like we would normally have, arriving with much excitement and suitcases brimming full of goodies,” says Kirsty Radley, British mum of three.
“But we are feeling positive and trying to make lots of magical memories for the kids.”
Kirsty says this year they will be celebrating at home on their own as a family. “Normally we would have a big gathering of all our friends and the kids on Christmas Eve, delicious food, craft activities and Christmas songs. This won’t be happening this year so we will be having hot chocolate bombs, Christmas PJs and a film in the afternoon, before we sprinkle reindeer food, hang up stockings and put out a plate of goodies for Father Christmas and the reindeer.”
Kirsty has also been keeping her children busy visiting the many festive activities on offer in Dubai. “A visit to Ski Dubai was the beginning of feeling Christmassy in our household,” she says. “We’ve been along to Nakheel Mall festive rooftop, Town Square, as well as heading out into the desert to light a campfire and enjoy toasted marshmallows.
“This year we also bought a special lockdown tree decoration to remember the year we all stayed at home. We have lots of video sessions booked for Christmas Day and have been keeping couriers busy with boxes coming from Grandparents.”
Lebanese designer Maria Mourad, mother of 9 year old Sienna and 6 year old George, is also doing her utmost to create a sense of Christmas spirit for her children. “This is the first time we will be celebrating Christmas far from our family. Of course we’re going to spend it with some friends and there’s lots to do, but there’s also a lot of sadness. I feel sad not to be able to see my mum or family, and the children miss their grandparents; they keep on talking about why we’re not going and of course it’s because of COVID.”
A designer by profession, Maria says she has been compensating for the disappointment by decorating, and then decorating some more: “We started putting the Christmas decorations up very early, and we kept adding and adding and adding,” she says. “I’m trying to make it the most magical possible for the children. Because first they are not with their family, so I want them really to feel the spirit of Christmas. And also because my kids are 6 and 9, and it might be the last year my oldest believes in the magic of Christmas, so I’m doing everything to compensate. I’m doing the Elf on the Shelf, we have all the Christmas apps, and lots of little magical things going on in the house.”
A more thoughtful festive season
While there’s no doubt people are taking the pandemic precautions seriously, the festive season does seem to be one area in which parents want to make a special effort to treat their children. Despite COVID, the visitor numbers to the Wafi ‘A December to Remember’ Christmas activation in 2020 have been similar to last year’s, says Wafi marketing executive Ahmed Mikdad Bhabhrawala, with many tourists attending the activation as well as residents. “Although some people are still reluctant to go out because of the pandemic precautions, they seem to be making an exception for the Santa meet,” says Bhabhrawala.
“We introduced online bookings for the first time this year, and we’ve seen that often people are booking their spot online, coming directly for the time slot to meet Santa, and then leaving.”
Another change to the Wafi Christmas offering this year is that the festive market is populated by small local businesses, rather than tenants of the mall as in previous years. “Small businesses have had a hard time of it this year and we wanted to help them,” says marketing executive Bhabhrawala. “Many of the stalls are manned by people who started their businesses during lockdown, and we have given them the opportunity to be part of the Wafi festive market free of charge to let them showcase their products and give them a helping hand.”
Parents also seem to be choosing their Christmas purchases more carefully, says Elli Kasab, Swedish-Iranian mum of two and founder of premium children’s clothes and toy boutique Elli Junior – although she says her online business has actually seen an uplift in numbers this year, even if the bricks-and-mortar stores have not. “Since people have been more careful with spending too much time at malls, they have been making more online orders this year and my digital business has seen a peak,” she says.
“But as a mother myself, I have been more careful with spending on expensive gifts and more focusing on what kids really need rather than nice to have. I believe this has been the case for many other families as well.”
Polly Williams, British mum of two and managing director of PR agency Tish Tash agrees: “There will certainly be fewer presents under the tree for my kids as I think one of the biggest lessons our family has learnt this year is that we don’t need all the material things we’ve become accustomed to.”
Meanwhile American mother of three and marketing manager for Citron Megan Kelly has thought up an ingenious way of making up for being away from family. “I think it’s been hardest on the grandparents being away from all the kids so my sisters and I have organized a play that all the cousins will act out individually and then we’ll put all the pieces together into one mini film for our parents to watch on Christmas Day. Well also watch it at home on Christmas Day and I think it will make the kids feels closer to their family.”
Missing family members
Not being able to see loved ones is having the biggest impact on UAE families this year.
Indian expat Charmain D’Souza and her husband Andre are missing their son Dillon who is currently working in the UK. “He is here every Christmas with us. This year we are missing him a lot,” she said.
Charmain said one of the traditions the family does every year is have their son Dillon place the “Star of Bethlehem”, or “Christmas Star” on their Christmas tree as part of their decoration.
Many Christians believe this star is a miraculous sign with astronomers even making several attempts to link the star to unusual celestial events.
“Every year the final touches on the Christmas tree is by our son Dillon when he places the star. This year we will not have a star as our son is not here with us for Christmas.”
She said with UK in lockdown and potential border closures, the family is not risking his travel to the UAE.
“But of course we will be in touch with him over Zoom. My husband and I will send our blessings via Zoom.”
Filipino expat Jude Delmonte, 43, who works as a medical technologist in Abu Dhabi agreed this Christmas will be a lot different from pre-Covid times.
“I usually spend my Christmas in Canada with my family. Covid-19 has changed how we live, work and celebrate Christmas day unfortunately. I put off a trip to Canada for Christmas as I did not want to risk my travel back to the UAE.”
Jude is not going to let her spirits be dampened however. “I have put up my Christmas tree. Yes there will be gift exchanges with friends. But no cash gifts to relatives or extended family.”
Jude said she will be spending a quiet Christmas with few friends doing her best to maintain social distancing. “I will then head to the beach to see the sunset. I will connect with friends and family in the evening to celebrate Christmas using a virtual celebration through Zoom meeting.”
Although this may not be the Christmas that was planned, families and businesses are thankful to be able to mark the occasion in the UAE, rather than in other countries where the pandemic is having a harsher impact,
German teacher in Dubai Paulina Zdobylak, 32, who is of Polish origin, says this Christmas will definitely be more pensive. “It will be a time to reflect and get more spiritual.”
Although normally she would go home to Germany to spend a big Christmas with family and friends. “The Covid situation is terrible in Europe. I don’t want to risk the travel and get locked up there.”
So instead Paulina invited her mother over to UAE to spend the festivity with her.
“We are trying to keep up with traditions and make the best of the celebration. Albeit it will be small – very small indeed.”
People are also thankful for the entertainment and activities that are still able to safely continue in the UAE. “There is no getting away from the fact that due to a global pandemic that celebrations will be different for everyone this year,” says Maxine English of Park Lane Live, an entertainments agency that provides festive events and activations. “But the care and safety precautions taken here in the UAE have paved the way for a ‘careful but normal’ celebration. Therefore outlets have proceeded with outstanding festive decorations and offers, as many families select to spend the holiday season here in the UAE due to uncertainty in their home countries.”
As French-American expat Sabine Haas says: “Usually, I would visit my family in France or go skiing in search of snow. But with COVID being a challenge overseas, we are better off here and more safe. The weather is great, beaches are open and Dubai is in such a celebratory mood. So no regrets staying back here.”