Yes, Christmas in the Middle East sounds like an oxymoron — and a little far fetched I agree. I too was blown away when I laid my eyes on my first Christmas tree. And of course, in full UAE style, there’s never just a simple Christmas tree but instead holiday sequoia-like trees that are three stories high and decorated by highly qualified Indian engineers. They spring up overnight immaculately decorated from top to bottom with an elaborate Santa village and dancing Filipino elves singing at the top of their lungs while enthusiastically pulling the willing into Santa’s house for a chat with the breaded guy. Even in the Middle East there’s a fascination with Christmas and all of the festivities; the colors, the baking, the snow, the giving. It’s the magic of the holiday and you don’t have to believe to participate. Muslims, Hindus, Shinto and Buddhist lined up in long queues to snap a pic and share in the joy.
This weekend we attended our first Carols in the Desert which has become an Abu Dhabi tradition for expats and some locals to drive 45 minutes into the middle of the desert to cook, dance, sing, and camp. This year over 2,000 people attended making the place look sort of like a festive refugee camp with the barren desert dotted with family camps spread over a large area of sand dunes. We arrived past dark without any idea of where we were going. Dragging a rolling Nascar cooler through the sand, up the dunes and stopped just as we crested the top only to find our friends had given up at the very same spot. Unable to see, unable to walk, we all decided this looks like a good spot. Since I had never attended I had no idea what to expect. Our Arizona friends, remember them, the Partridge Family of the Middle East? They were there of course because they will bust out in a song and strumming a guitar at any given opportunity. I could faintly hear them jamming away on the other side of the camp. In fact, many of my friends were there but it was so dark you couldn’t see. Hello. Hello. Hello. You could scream into the pitch dark night. Everyone around us was keeping a close eye on their small children for fear they would wander off and end up as camel food.
My friend Kerstin brought along ginormous marshmallows and they were the talk of the festive refugee camp. Never knowing what will be the conversation piece that pulls people together from the far corners of the desert, I was not surprised that it was the incredible hunk of gooeyness that was on the end of our camp fire stick. “Where’d you get those marshmallows? They’re like incredible. They’re like on steroids. They’re like a science experiment. They’re like the size of my bra cup. They’re like the size of my jock cup. They’re like a two-day meal. They’re like swelling up in my belly and I am not feeling so well.” Looking back on the event, I believe if I had a little more insight I would’ve definitely been better prepared for the Carols in the Desert. I would’ve made sure I had on a costume. Maybe a Grinch or a Mrs. Claus. I would’ve brought a lighted Jedi sword, a headlamp with an adjustable strap, popcorn, glow sticks, a pop-up tent, and maybe a glow in the dark frisbee. I believe that could possibly make Carols in the Desert an extraordinary event. There’s always next year and many opportunities in between to practice for perfecting the practice of being a festive refugee.