Joy to the lobby

Saloon Gingerbread and carolers come to Abu Dhabi's hotels, Sarah Wolff writes.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - December 23, 2008: Intercontinental hotel staff sing Christmas carols from December 13 to  24th at 5pm for 30 minutes a day. 
( Ryan Carter / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  RC005-XmasCarols.jpg
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Gingerbread and carolers come to Abu Dhabi's hotels, Sarah Wolff writes.

The hotel staff choir at the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental Hotel sing with trained precision: "Outside the snow is falling and friends are calling you HOO!" No one seems to care a figgy pudding that there hasn't been snowfall in the United Arab Emirates since, well, ever. Christmas cheer will be had, no matter what. In the UAE, known to the rest of the world for its flashy glamour, it's not a surprise that Christmas is also done to the hilt, even though the majority of residents come from places that don't celebrate the holiday. Just walking up to the front door of the hotel, visitors are greeted with rows of red and white poinsettia lining the driveway, twinkling lights strewn about the hedges and at least three christmas trees decorated tastefully, if brightly, with red and gold balls. Even the revolving door, which features two glass window boxes, houses chic gray topiary trees with gold tinsel, just in case guests haven't yet realised it's Christmas.

Once inside, there is a huge and functional gingerbread house where guests can buy holiday treats from around the world, such as German pfefernussen - crumbly shortbreads covered in powdered sugar - and Italian pannetone - a giant brioche studded with candied fruits. The oven-baked house at the Intercon is an A-frame, perhaps a cheeky reference to the 1970s. But it's not the only gingerbread monument in town: the Sheraton corniche hotel in Abu Dhabi decided to let form follow function, building its edible edifice around its coffee shop counter, so that staffers serve cappuccinos and the like from gingerbread takeout windows.

But the main event at the Intercon is the choir's floor show of caroling, for which the singers have practiced nearly every day for about a month. The chorus has 22 members, nearly all of them Filipino and all from different parts of the hotel's staff. They swish into place wearing a blush-inducing combo of red satin sleeveless capes and Santa hats. Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass sections are all lined up into neat rows set up on the main steps of the lobby piano lounge. The choir sings Christmas ditties like Jingle Bell Rock - a song that has no religious significance but does somehow evoke boozy office Christmas parties - alongside church classics such O Come All Ye Faithful, as sunburned tourists from Europe stroll in and out, sometimes pausing for a minute or two.

There are also a few tables of Arab businessmen who are smoking and deal-making. They seem totally unbothered by the loud singing and proceed without any visible acknowledgement of the carolers. A European mum comes to sit right in the front with her two little boys, the smaller of which, a toddler, begins to howl along with the tunes. Every day at around six o'clock, after 30 minutes of cheerful singing, the choir goes back into a private room where they review their performance. "It's a time we can all get together and laugh at our mistakes," says Josie, an executive secretary who has been with the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental for 24 years. "It's fun actually." The choir keeps in reserve one song in Tagalog, Pasko Na Naman (It's Christmas Again), which they don't perform every afternoon but sing only when the spirit moves them.

Ivan "Magic" Mejica, the security supervisor at the hotel, conducts the choir and even sings a lovely solo on O Holy Night. A tenor who has been singing since high school, Mejica says he ended up conducting the choir only because everyone else was too timid to step up. "I used to sing in church too as a tenor," says Mejica, a former member of the Filipino military with a buzz cut hairdo and the requisite security-team accessory, a walkie-talkie, hanging inside his jacket. His favorite carol to sing, conduct and hear is Silent Night. "When I sing it, I feel the presence of the music," he says. "I love soft songs - when I hear them it's like a form of unwinding."