Christmas in UAE: How families from 5 different cultures are celebrating festive season

From putting out carrot and milk for reindeers to making kids wear matching pyjamas, here are some unusual traditions followed by expats


Nasreen Abdulla

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KT file photo by Shihab
KT file photo by Shihab

Published: Sat 24 Dec 2022, 4:46 PM

Last updated: Sat 24 Dec 2022, 6:53 PM

Home to over 200 nationalities, the UAE is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Christmas is one time that family traditions and culture come together to give one big blend of happiness and festive cheer.

We speak to five Dubai families from various parts of the world about how they are celebrating Christmas in the city.

1. Surina Kelly, New Zealand

Born and raised in the UAE, Christmas is a special family time for Surina Kelly. “In New Zealand, our Christmas is during summer and the day is very bright and sunny,” she said. “So celebrating in Dubai doesn’t feel very different.”

The family puts up and decorates their tree after the UAE National Day weekend. “I gift my children one ornament each year that has some kind of significance to something that happened to them that year,” she said.

“I do the same for two of my best friends. That is a tradition we have followed all through our growing years. Also, every year we visit the Wafi City grotto and take photos with Santa. I have the photos on the fridge in my kitchen of all the years we gave gone.”

Surina’s sister has been making mulled drinks for the family since their childhood. “I have a bottle in the fridge right now,” she said.

“Whatever is left over from the batch goes into the following year’s batch. We have been doing for years now.”

Getting the Christmas smells going is the most important thing for Surina. The family also watches 'Nightmare Before Christmas' every X'mas eve and the kids get matching pyjamas. “That is more of a family tradition than a cultural one,” she said.

“Also, my husband is Irish. So my mother-in-law makes Christmas pudding for each of her kids’ families and ships it out to us.”

The family opens gifts on the morning Christmas Day. “Usually the kids are up way too early because they are so excited,” she said. “As soon as they wake up, it is straight to the presents. Then we usually have lunch at home with the whole family.”

2. Anastasia Yermakova, Belarus

Growing up in the Soviet era, Christmas was a quieter celebration than New Year. “The Catholics celebrated Christmas on December 25th and the Orthodox celebrated on January 6th,” she said. “And everyone celebrated New Year’s together. It was one of the best times of my childhood.”

For Anastasia, Christmas is all about the smells. “Everyone used to have fresh Christmas trees,” she said. “Because the trees grew around us. On January 1st there would be fresh Moroccan mandarins under the tree, a box of chocolate and if we were lucky, there would be toys. For me, the smell of pine and the mandarins together was the most luxurious thing. It just meant festivities. Gifts were exchanged and then the celebrations would continue until January 6.”

She said that there was always plentiful on the dinner table for New Year’s eve. “Ladies of the house would cook all day and nobody is allowed to eat it till late evening,” she said.

“We have this joke that on New Year’s eve, before 11pm, it is always ‘don’t eat, don’t touch that’ but after midnight, it is ‘eat some more or it will go bad’. It was a really special time”

Now that she is married to an Englishman, Anastasia says her celebrations have changed a lot. “We do a Christmas tree and place presents under it on the 25th,” she said.

“It is very different to what I grew up with.”

3. Elicha Malilay, Philippines

For teenager Elicha and her family, their celebrations of Christmas in the UAE is very similar to that in Philippines. The family usually puts up their Christmas tree in September. “This year we got late though because we were really busy,” she said. “we got around to it only in the beginning of December.”

“We do something called Simbang Gabi where we go to church for 9 days straight until Christmas Day,” she said. “On Christmas eve, which we call Noche Buena, we start preparing from the morning. Women cook all day and clean the house. Then the whole family gets together for dinner.”

According to Elicha, the celebrations begin at midnight and go on till the wee hours of Christmas Day. “When we are in the UAE, we video call with our grandparents and cousins at midnight to feel like we are celebrating together,” she said. “We play games, laugh, joke and catch up with each other.”

Christmas Day is quiet for the family. “We either chill at home or go to the mall,” she said. “It is my favourite time of the year as it is all about family and fun.”

4. Annu George, India

This year, the Indian expat is looking forward to attending mass on Christmas Day, which falls on a Sunday. “This is the first year that we will have Sunday off and it is Christmas,” she said, “It will be special.”

This year, like every year, Annu has prepared sangria and plum cake at home. “I make the non-alcoholic version of sangria,” she said. “Christmas day morning is usually duck roast and palappam. It is a tradition that we have in Kerala and I try to recreate it for my kids as well.”

For dinner, she makes roast turkey and plum sauce on Christmas day. “We have a lot of friends and family over,” she said. “For me that is what Christmas is all about- having my loved ones around a table with good food, fun and laughter.”

The family puts up their tree on December 1st and gifts are opened at midnight on Xmas eve. “My kids just wait for the clock to strike midnight,” she chuckled. “Then it is a mad dash for the tree and the gifts are ripped open.”

5. Jennifer Green, UK

It is the first time that Jennifer will be celebrating Christmas with her 8-week-old son Alfie. “This year, my husband and I have had some very serious discussions about what traditions from each of our families we want to continue for Alfie,” she said. “Not that it matters this year but for when he is older.”

According to Jennifer, her family has had a tradition of having lasagna for dinner on Christmas eve. “It is nothing to do with a culture, but a family thing,” she said. “It is an easy dish to prepare ahead and just stick into the oven once the family arrives.”

The family puts out carrot and milk for the reindeers and a milk pie and drink for Santa on the eve on Christmas. “Yesterday when I went grocery shopping, I remembered to buy the carrots for it,” she said. “It was a very special thing for me as a kid so I want to recreate that for Alfie as well.”

Presents are usually put under the tree on Christmas eve for Jennifer, but her husband Phil’s family has a different tradition. “They would get presents at different times from different family members and then a separate stack of gifts from Santa under the tree,” she said. “But we just had a pile of gifts altogether from all the family members on Christmas day. So Santa was almost like a mail man to us.”

This year, the family is joined by Jennifer’s father Clive Leader and they intend to go out for brunch on Christmas day. “We booked and paid for the brunch in October,” she said.

“They get booked out really quicky. It is quite unusual in the UK to go out for Christmas lunch but here in the UAE, we don’t have any extended family so we celebrate with our friends who have become our extended family.”

For Clive, this will be only the second time in his life that he will be going out for lunch on Christmas Day. “It is different to what I am used to,” he said.

“But I am looking forward to it. I think the essence of Christmas hasn’t changed much since when I was young. This time is all about being with family and your loved ones.”


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