How house calls from the Abu Dhabi Ruler helped bring Christmas spirit to the desert

The visit of Sheikh Shakhbout to an expatriate family on Christmas morning in 1955 set the tone of tolerance for the festive season that continued through the years to this day

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Abu Dhabi, 1955 — a small town consisting of a stone fort and palm-frond huts on the shores of the Arabian Gulf.

For foreign residents of the emirate, Christmas traditions such as carols and trees seemed very far away.

But on December 25 that year, a carol service and a speech from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II crackled through the wireless from London to the Abu Dhabi desert, bringing Christmas cheer and a sense of home to the handful of British residents listening in from very far away.

“I have spent … many a strange Christmas overseas,” wrote Roderic Owen in his book, The Golden Bubble, about the 1955 celebration. “But … nothing would compare with Christmastide in Abu Dhabi.”

Almost 70 years on, the festive season is in full effect across the UAE. Decorations light up malls and roads and people enjoy glitzy Christmas markets, tree-lighting ceremonies and lavish festive brunches. But it wasn’t always like this.

Swapping snow for sand

Some of the first proper Christmas celebrations in the modern-day UAE took place the home of Tim Hillyard, a representative of BP in Abu Dhabi who was overseeing the search for oil.

Hillyard moved to Abu Dhabi in 1954 and was joined with his wife and daughter in one of the few stone houses at the time.

Owen was a guest of Hillyard's in 1955 and he wrote they intended on making it a “real Christmas with turkey and plum pudding, a Christmas tree and all the accessories”.

“Christmas Day in Abu Dhabi dawned, clear and sunny,” Owen wrote. “By half-closing one’s eyes, the sand stretching away towards the town looked like snow, rutted with wheel tracks, powdery and sparkling.”

A special festive guest

Sheikh Shakhbout, Ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time, paid courtesy calls to Hillyard’s house. That Christmas morning in 1955, Owen recorded Sheikh Shakhbout commenting that they must be missing their church and he was sorry there wasn’t one in Abu Dhabi for them to attend.

When they replied, asking whether he would disapprove of a church, he answered: “Of course not. You need your religion as we need ours.”

Sheikh Shakhbout made several visits to the house over the next few years and listened to carols sung there. He paid increasing attention to spiritual needs, granted land for Christian churches and the first Christmas services were held by the mid-1960s.

A yearning for Yuletide over the years

Celebrating Christmas at the was largely private. Celebrations took place in people’s homes, military bases such as RAF Sharjah and facilities such as Abu Dhabi’s The Club and Dubai Country Club.

During the 1970s, expatriate communities were still small enough that UAE leaders often visited homes personally to say happy Christmas, and the courtesy was returned at Eid. Christian services began to take place across the UAE.

“My recollection is Christmas Day was not a holiday, although Dubai's merchants liked Christmas for obvious reasons,” said Len Chapman, who arrived in Dubai in 1971. “Shops were appropriately decorated — not all but many.”

A typical Christmas was going to services, followed by dinner at home. A familiar sight at schools and clubs was Santa arriving to dispense presents and Christmas cheer at schools across the country.

“We would decorate our villa, spray the windows with fake snow, crank up the AC, play Christmas tunes and cook a traditional Christmas dinner, all purchased from Spinneys in Jumeirah,” said Sally Brocklebank, who lived in Dubai with husband Peter from 1979 to 1985.

“But most important of all was to invite friends of all nationalities to enjoy the feast, pull crackers wear paper crowns, read silly jokes and finish off with a game of charades.”

John Jacobs, who lived in Sharjah from 1976 to 1983, with his wife, three children and nanny, said there wasn't much for sale.

"No decorations, postcards or whatsoever," said Mr Jacobs, who is from The Netherlands. Mr Jacobs brought his own decorations from home and managed to source a real tree though contacts in the aviation industry.

"Every year we managed to create a real Christmas ambiance in our house with a real Christmas tree, decorations and lights," he said. "Nice and sweet memories for us, the three children and the nanny."

By the 1980s in Abu Dhabi, artificial trees could be purchased locally and staff could even be hired to decorate it.

“The following year, we got out the same tree which, of course, needed decorating again,” said Harry Bonning, a British citizen who lived in Abu Dhabi from 1988 to 1999. “This was solved by a phone call to the shop where we bought it and they sent one of their staff to decorate it. Try that in England.”

By the 1980s, the Christmas spirit had been embraced by major hotels such as the Sheraton Dubai Creek and the now demolished Metropolitan Hotel. What had been a largely private affair was becoming more visible and commercialised.

“Christmas was behind closed doors until the hotels got involved,” said Michelle Brown, a singer who performed at 1980s festive concerts in Dubai. “I believe these hotels were entrusted with trying out Christmas events appropriately, which were enthusiastically received by the public at that time.”

But it was still hard to get decorations. Ms Brown, who performed as a duo with Mark Lloyd, recounted one episode in 1987 where they could not find decorations for a Christmas-themed photo shoot. One supermarket, however, had a display inside the shop.

“So we went down in taxi, climbed into the display while a friend took picture of us from outside. We left before they realised what we were up to,” she recalls with a chuckle.

A more sobering Christmas took place several years later in 1990 during the Gulf War. Dubai was filled with troops from the US, France, UK, the Netherlands and more as Desert Storm — the operation to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait — was weeks away. Tension was high. No one knew what was to come.

“That year was emotional as we all knew why the troops were building up in the area and we had no idea who would make it home afterwards,” said Ms Brown, who performed at the Hilton by the Trade Centre that year.

“It was very poignant. Young men lined up in their dozens snaking across the lobby waiting for five-minute call. People were in tears after it.”

By the mid-1990s, Christmas became a much more visible celebration, particularly in Dubai. Although not a public holiday, Christmas today has grown to a lengthy affair that caps a month of celebrations that also include the UAE’s National Day and Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Christmas songs were even played in some Dubai malls in October this year, a far cry from that small, quiet celebration in Abu Dhabi in 1955.

A version of this article was first published in December 2022.

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Updated: December 25, 2023, 3:03 AM