When I told my friends and family I was going to stay in Dubai over the Christmas holidays I was met with “but Christmas isn’t celebrated there” or people feeling sad for me that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the festivities. Everybody assumed I would miss out, but in fact, I didn’t feel that way at all. Dubai is an international city that welcomes everybody. I was pleasantly surprised by the similarities I found and some of the differences were really enjoyable to experience.
The festive build up still felt the same
Whilst the main concern may be feeling lonely spending Christmas away from loved ones at home, there is something special about the ex-pat community here as so many people have moved alone, it means they tend to make extra effort to form connections and friendships with others in a similar position. Still being quite new here, I find that other expats are eager to share their Dubai wisdom and experiences with me. A few months in, I even find myself doing the same for others who have moved more recently than me! So, around the end of the year when everybody is feeling festive, you can definitely expect to meet lots of people out and about and make friends.
Friends who were worried about me not feeling “Christmassy” enough sent over a box of gifts, treats and decorations from the UK, which was a nice surprise and really thoughtful. However, the postal service here is very different to the UK! If you send something home you must plan in advance and expect it to take over a week to arrive. There aren’t a lot of postboxes here, you probably need to drive to one, and if you miss your delivery you will have to pick it up from the post office. It’s clunky to say the least, although I’ve since learned that a more efficient way is to call a private delivery company, who can come to you to collect your letter or parcel and deliver it with tracking. You live and learn!
Hotels all over Dubai hosted Christmas markets, parties and brunches throughout December, some even started in November. There were lots of Christmas jumpers out and about where people were out celebrating with friends and colleagues, and there was plenty to entertain children and adults alike, with decorations and cheesy songs everywhere.
Everybody got involved
Although the UAE is an Islamic country, there are a variety of churches for different Christian denominations and huge communities who attend for Christmas mass. Dubai proudly welcomes all faiths, with 2019 being celebrated as the Year of Tolerance.
I also found that many locals and people who are not from Christian countries were also out at the markets, Santa’s grotto in the mall and joining in on the festivities. The season is enjoyed by children and families from all over the world and is no longer reserved just for Christian families. It’s fun to celebrate what the season means to different people with everybody who wants to get involved, and not only what you traditionally have experienced.
I always find it interesting to hear about other people’s Christmas day traditions. You know your own next door neighbor will have a different idea of what’s in a Christmas dinner and what they spend their day doing, let alone somebody from another country. Between all of the different nationalities and backgrounds of people in Dubai, there are endless different ideas and seasonal traditions to learn about.
I celebrated with friends
Lots of expats do go home for Christmas, so my friends and I made sure to celebrate before they did. I spent an evening at one of Dubai’s many Christmas markets with friends, just as I would have in the UK. Only this time I wore sandals and wasn’t freezing the entire time which was fantastic. I still ate churros dipped in chocolate, listening to live bands play ‘cool’ (still cheesy) remixes of Christmas songs and browsed the handmade gifts and gingerbread houses on offer. Madinat even had Santa Claus driving the abra boats around the canals which were a nice touch.
Nobody embraced the season more than the shopping malls
In the lead up to the festivities, it was still easy to buy decorations, treats and gifts. In fact, some might say the shopping malls were almost too festive! If there are specific things that you can’t imagine Christmas without, you can likely find them as there are M&S and Waitrose stores all around, as well as Choithrams which stocks Tesco items. If what you love isn’t from the UK, this is a very international city so there are plenty of other shops and malls where you can find what you are looking for.
I was greeted by Santa Claus at my local grocery shop, and most of the malls had Santa’s grottos, festive performances and fake snow playgrounds for kids. For those who miss the actual snow at Christmas, there is always Ski Dubai! Ski Dubai is an indoor slope that goes all out for Christmas, with loads of trees, carols on loop and excellent hot chocolate. They have alpine cafés and a restaurant with a hearty menu to enjoy from the warmth indoors whilst watching the fun. Even more exciting, you can meet real penguins and try the zip line, toboggan slides and rides.
One difference is that you cannot purchase alcohol at your usual shops. However, if you like a drink on Christmas Day you can visit the pubs, hotels or bars and you can purchase an alcohol license to buy drinks at alcohol shops to have at home. Just make sure you purchase your license in advance so that it has time to process (it can take up to a month) before you go back to the store to purchase your alcohol.
I didn’t miss out on Christmas dinner
If you love a proper roast dinner, there are plenty of options to choose from. The brunches and buffets here usually offer a festive Christmas dinner option and there are loads of British style pubs that will offer the perfect UK-style roast. One difference for many who love pigs in blankets or bacon with their Christmas dinner is that usually these items are made from beef or chicken unless they are explicitly referred to as pork on the menu. These alternatives taste great, but if you prefer pork, you have to go to a restaurant or venue that is permitted to sell it, usually those that are connected to hotels. You can also buy pork from the larger supermarkets, where it is sold in a separate room.
Loads of hotels offer roast dinner delivery or takeaway. This is uncommon in the UK where usually families eat a home-cooked roast. However, in Dubai where relaxing is the aim, delivery is really popular. So, to have your Christmas dinner the Dubai-way either head out or order in! I did try a takeaway turkey dinner with friends, and it was nice and definitely made the celebrations in my friend’s small apartment much easier as we didn’t have to worry about having enough plates, multiple types of potato to suit everyone, and buying whole jars of sauce that won’t get used again. However, I have to say I prefer the satisfaction of enjoying a home-cooked roast that you’ve worked hard preparing.
I enjoyed an unconventional Christmas day
Everything stays open! Unlike in the UK, Dubai operates as usual and Christmas is not a national holiday. However, the roads were quieter on the day, just like at home. Restaurants and hotels hosted guests for Christmas meals, parties and more, I visited a mall that was operating as usual and amusement parks, restaurants and other establishments continue to work. This gives you so many options for how to spend your day! Cinema? Beach party? Waterpark? Skydiving? No problem. The opportunities are endless so you can make it a memorable one.
I was fortunate enough to have Christmas Day off as a company holiday, although this isn’t common across Dubai. I chose to spend my first Christmas abroad in an unusual way as I wanted to make the most of being in a hot country. I spent the day in Abu Dhabi, kayaked through the mangroves, rode on the big wheel at the Marina and had dinner and hot chocolate at a restaurant. Then on Boxing Day after work I enjoyed a home cooked roast. I still managed to watch the Queen’s speech online and what actually surprised me the most was having carol singers knock on my front door!
… and rang in the new year with a bang!
Not only does Dubai celebrate New Year’s Eve just as much as we do at home, but I’d say it seems to be an even bigger occasion out here! New Year’s Day is a national holiday and the Burj Khalifa puts on a huge fireworks display. There are loads of others around Dubai, too. Similarly to London, venues with a view of the fireworks will be very expensive, the traffic tends to get a bit crazy and taking a reasonably priced taxi is difficult, but there are so many options for where to spend your evening. I had dinner at home with friends, before watching fireworks at the beach then going to a nightclub. The real fun was on New Year’s Day, however, when I was invited by other expats to a boat party. We danced in the sun on a boat all afternoon – that’s certainly something you can’t do in the same way in the UK and I wish I could do it every New Year’s Day.
Christmas is what you make of it
Wherever you are, and whatever the weather, Christmas is what you make of it. Whether you prefer to keep it low-key or go all out, you’ll feel the familiar merriness and excited buzz when you’re out during December. You can celebrate as traditionally or as alternatively as you like – although my advice would be to make the most of the opportunities and make a lasting memory!
Whilst your Christmas may not be white (or grey like in the UK), you can swap snowmen for sandmen on the beach and still have lots of festive fun. There is no need to miss any of your well-loved traditions as this city does cater for everyone.
You can glam up, wear your best and attend a sparkly brunch, you can have a beach barbecue, or cook at home and watch trashy Christmas movies. Regardless of your religion or where you are from, everybody is welcomed to join in and it’s a nice time to be in this city.
Crystal Vera McClelland
Social Media & Marketing Executive