How Christmas services were different in 1970s Dubai

Veteran worshippers at St Mary’s Catholic Church recall a simpler time

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Two long-time parishioners of St Mary’s Catholic Church have reflected on how Christmas has changed over the years.

Emolyn Bucsit and Joseph James have been attending festive services at Dubai’s oldest Catholic church for decades and have had a front-row seat from which to view the huge transformation that has taken place.

Up to 20,000 people are expected at midnight mass on Sunday and tens of thousands on Monday, Christmas Day, but they both can recall a simpler time when crowds were smaller and festivities more humble.

In the [Christmas Day] service there is a place where we pray for the entire world
Joseph James, 72, parishioner of St Mary's Catholic Church

“Christmas in Dubai those days was celebrated within the walls of the church,” said Mr James, 72, who came to the UAE from India in 1977.

“There were no festivities outside,” said Mr James, who recalls a small town with two main landmarks – Deira’s Clock Tower and the yet-to-open Dubai World Trade Centre.

“Outside there were no Christmas trees or decorations. Even the FM radio station didn't mention it. There was no tree in the compound but inside the church we had a crib."

St Mary’s was built in the late 1960s to cater for the increased numbers of Catholics that were coming to the city.

Sheikh Rashid, then Ruler of Dubai, granted the land for the church and a plaque there today highlights how he also donated the church bells in a spirit of tolerance that underpins the UAE to this day.

St Mary’s was rebuilt in the 1980s on the same site in Oud Metha to cater for the boom and Christmas services continued to be limited within the church.

But by the time Emolyn Bucsit arrived in Dubai in 1990 from the Philippines, Christmas was starting to be more widely celebrated and brought some much-needed comfort to those away from home.

“My first Christmas was a homesick Christmas,” said Ms Bucsit, 67. “I came not expecting to have a church here. But you don’t feel [being homesick] because the church was active.”

By the late 1990s, Christmas celebrations became more common across the city and, while not “grand” like today, Ms Bucsit said the “church was vibrant, with the choir singing Christmas carols”.

Cribs were now displayed outside the church while a small tree had been erected outside by the late 1990s.

"When you enter the gates of the church, you know there is a festival," said Mr James. "You can see the giant Christmas tree. You can see the decorations all around. A festival look is there."

The number attending has now surged since those early days, in line with Dubai's population boom.

From a few thousand attending services that Mr James recalls in the early days, there could be up to 20,000 people at St Mary's for midnight mass on Christmas Eve alone.

Worshippers will throng the church, school and halls, and spill outside to the football field and church compound.

Tens of thousands of people are also expected on Christmas Day and TV screens have been installed to allow the devoted outside watch the service. Close to 20 masses will be held over the two days in several languages.

"We understand this is not a Christian country," said Mr James. "I don’t think there will be any other place in the world where you can celebrate Christmas with so much security and so much happiness."

With the region going through a difficult moment, particularly the Gaza war, general prayers for peace are also expected at Christmas services.

“In the [Christmas Day] service there is a place where we pray for the entire world,” said Mr James. “We pray for the Rulers. We pray for people of UAE. We pray for peace in the world. We pray where there are problems, peace is established.”

At St Mary’s on Thursday, the finishing touches were being applied to the decorations. People snapped photographs of the large Christmas tree, while festive lights and tinsel adorned the walls.

“It has been a huge change from very small numbers,” said Ms Bucsit. “Sometimes you don’t feel homesick because you are happy and as if you are at home.”

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Updated: December 21, 2023, 1:08 PM