The Bracho family's house stands out in a 16-villa beachside complex in Abu Dhabi's Al Bahia. Firstly, the front garden is dominated by a huge inflatable Grinch, illuminated by dozens of light bulbs hanging overhead.
Inside is a glistening Christmas tree, standing prominently in a living room brimming with festive decorations — think funky stuffed Santa toys, gingerbread men, nutcracker figurines and red, velvet curtains adorned with string lights.
“I love seeing people's happy faces when they come here,” Gaby Bracho, the matriarch of the family, tells The National.
“I love the joy and cosiness Christmas brings. When Covid hit, people stopped visiting and there was almost no social life. I have always loved Christmas, but decorating the house became more of a thing [post-pandemic], so every time people visit, they will smile.”
Amid the pandemic, Gaby, her husband Joe and their daughter Victoria decided to keep their Christmas decorations up in 2019. They only took them down in March this year, and began redecorating for this Christmas last month.
“I couldn't find a reason to remove them, because no one was visiting anyway. I could keep it for myself,” Gaby says with a chuckle, highlighting how the festive feeling brought on by the decorations helped the family to cope with social isolation.
Gaby's attachment to Christmas stems from her upbringing in Guatemala, a predominantly Catholic country where, she says, festive celebrations are “over the top”.
“It's a lot of lights and fireworks, very colourful, and there are Santas everywhere. We miss that,” she says. Luckily for her and her family, the UAE is big on Christmas fervour, and “the people here are so kind and have welcomed us so beautifully”.
Classic pieces aside, Gaby incorporates religious themes in her decor, including a mini sculpture of a scene from the Nativity story and an intricate baby Jesus figurine.
Although Gaby has managed to bring many of her cultural traditions to the UAE, she misses one particular festival, Las Posadas, which commemorates the journey of Joseph and Mary in search of a safe place to give birth to Jesus Christ.
As part of the festival, members of a community take it in turns to look after a depiction of the baby Jesus. Prayers are recited and Christmas carols are sung.
This aspect of Christmas is what resonates most with the Bracho family, an appreciation for which Gaby and Joe ultimately want their daughter to inherit.
“For our family, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. We want to pass down these traditions to our lovely daughter Victoria, so when she has her own family one day, she will have the same sensations and say, 'Hey, I remember my Christmas back home with my mum and dad,'” says Joe, who is a pilot with Etihad Airways.
“Hopefully she can inherit that and carry on the tradition, and definitely my wife will be here to help her,” he says.
Joe was born to Latino parents but grew up in the US, and says he has fond memories of Christmas in his childhood. “We want Victoria to have this, too. This is why we go all out. She still believes in Santa.”
Gaby adds: “It's all about making memories, and we want her to have these types of memories for ever.”
The season also allows the Bracho family to reconnect with loved ones in the Americas. “This is the season when you start feeling the blues, you start feeling homesick,” says Joe.
However, he adds that celebrating Christmas, with all the decorations and traditions, is a way to bridge the distance. “We want to create that Christmas spirit here, and bring it to Victoria as much as we can. This is also what we want for everyone in the UAE.”
This Christmas is extra-special for the family. Joe's parents are in town and have brought with them traditional tamales, a dish made from a corn-based dough and stuffed with meat or beans and cheese, to add to the turkey and enhance their Christmas feast this year.