One celebration, many ways: Christmas celebrations across the UAE

This Christmas Eve, priests of several denominations in the UAE talk about what the day means to them.

Fr Tanios Geagea, priest at Saint Mary’s in Dubai, says Christmas means many things to his flock, but what prevails is a strong sense of family and belonging, especially for the faithful whose relatives may be enduring life in many of the region’s conflict zones. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Some like to joke that it is their busiest day of the year. For Christian priests, tomorrow, December 25, and the first week in January for the Orthodox Church, is a special time for them and their flock.

This Christmas Eve, priests of several denominations in the UAE talk about what the day means to them.

They come from all walks of life to make a wish on a massive Christmas tree standing inside St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai. The most common wish is for their families, asking God to bless them and keep them safe.

“Christmas is a time for family and giving, and so for those who are away from family and who may have lost family members in conflict zones like Syria, this Christmas will be particularly difficult for them,” says Father Tanios Geagea, who holds the Arabic and French masses at the St Mary’s Catholic Church.

“So many can’t go back home, even if they wanted to. So they are making the UAE their home, and the church and its visitors their new family,” he said.

Throughout the year, the 25 year old church bustles with worshippers. Some come to get married, others for baptism, others just to pray.

At Christmas, preparation for the celebrations for the birth of Christ lasts over a month. Each week masses are held in several languages by different fathers on topics related to giving, reconnecting with God, the stories of Jesus and Mary and acts of kindness to others.

“We remind worshippers the importance of forgiveness, mercy and giving back to those around us, even if by a kind word or gesture,” he says. “People sometimes get too caught up with the materialistic things, like buying things and gifts for Christmas when it is more of a soulful time and a time for self reflection.”

A Christmas Novena, a set of repeated special prayers, is held after each mass up to Dec 23. On Christmas Eve, there are confessions sessions from 8am to 12 noon, followed by masses and carol singing at 11:30pm and then the midnight mass.

“What ends up happening is a lot of people bring gifts for the less fortunate, and we collect them all and then distribute them as Christmas gifts,” he said. “That is the spirit of Christmas, to be grateful to God for what you have, and to give and remember others.”

A softly spoken priest, who took his vows at 27, Father Geagea is more than a man of the cloth. For many, he is a father figure and consoler, especially for Middle Eastern Christians, over 10,000 strong in Dubai, who visit the church just to talk or seek advice.

“Last Christmas, an old Syrian man was trying to talk to me while I was running around and trying to sort things out. I had just finished speaking about the need to pause and look around us and see who is in need, and thought, aha, here is my test, I have to practice what I preach,” he says.

The old man had fallen on hard times and had fines to pay for a car accident he had caused, but didn’t have the money. After a few calls to a lawyer friend, the old man was advised to admit he had made a mistake and to ask for mercy.

“And the court here did forgive most of his fines and debts,” said the priest. “So sometimes there is great kindness if someone truly asks for mercy and forgiveness.”

Another time he was able to reconcile a quarrel between a Lebanese and a Syrian family. “Sometimes all people need is someone to listen to them. So that is what anyone can do, listen and be there for someone this Christmas,” said Father Geagea. “Everyone needs a bit of love, care and understanding in their lives, and so just be generous with your heart and your time. People are always so busy being busy, they forget to live.”

Rym Ghazal

Father Eldhon Edappattu, from Kerala, India, is the vicar at Mor Ignatius Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Jebel Ali. His church will hold a special mass on Christmas Eve.

“As you know, the 25 of December is the birthday of Jesus Christ and we are celebrating that. During these days, we have a carol service, our youth members and our priests will visit our church members’s houses and sing songs.

“We will have a special mass, a special Christmas service, with special prayers and all these things — all relating to the birth of Christ. We will have something like a campfire: not a campfire, but a fire in front of the church — and all the members will stand around it.”

The campfire, he explains, is a symbolic reference to the night when the angel Gabriel appeared before shepherds and told them the “good news” that Jesus was born, and that they should go see him. They had been sleeping, but were drawn to the “heavenly light” of angels.

“In my childhood, in Kerala, our Malankara church would celebrate at midnight, and the service would end at 6am. But, for convenience, now it is celebrated on Christmas Eve from 7pm onwards, and will end at around 10pm or 11pm.”

Mr Edappattu expects there will be 450 member families and 200 others present for the Christmas Eve mass — roughly 1,000 people in total.

His Syrian Orthodox church, also known as the Jacobite Syrian church in India, is keen to encourage the symbolism of Santa Claus — evident in the question: “Do you know Santa Claus?”.

“Santa was an early bishop and he liked to sing with the children in the streets. In Christmas season, Santa Claus went to streets, gave gifts to the children and celebrated Christmas along with them. That is why the Christmas tree and Santa Claus have become symbols of Christmas.”

“The message of Christmas,” says Mr Edappattu, “is peace, joy and love.”

Hareth Al Bustani

Alan Paul, senior pastor at the Pentecostal New Covenant Church in Dubai, says Christmas is a time to remember not just the birth and life of Jesus Christ, but the belief that he will one day return to Earth.

“The significance is that his birth was prophesied — his coming at the time that he did, and the place that he did, was prophesied. For us, he’s no ordinary person — but the promised messiah.”

Mr Paul, who has been a pastor for over two decades, says he would not want to “cross swords” with anyone over when and how Christmas is celebrated and would rather focus on being grateful. “People always say ‘do you think you’re God’s gift to mankind?’” he booms with laughter, “but Jesus really is God’s gift to mankind.”

Last Friday, the church sang carols, both ancient and modern, and tonight, Christmas Eve, children will put on a nativity play.

“People used to go house-to-house singing carols, but we cannot do that so we are going to friends’ house. Last year we had an event on a dhow on the creek, it was really lovely. But we couldn’t get the dhow this year.”

Not everyone can take time off work on Christmas, he says, but the church encourages members to spend Christmas day with family and friends.

Hareth Al Bustani

John Welkner, associate pastor at the evangelical United Christian Church of Dubai, believes that while the birth of Jesus is important, worshippers should remain charitable and devout throughout the year.

Mr Welkner says on Christmas day, at his 10am sermon, the church sees “hundreds of faces that we’ve not seen throughout the year”. He attributes this to people feeling compelled to act on “religious duty, rather than a real act of worship and adoration of God”.

“I think if that’s the level of your religious devotion, you’ve got to ask yourself whether that’s actually honouring to God, or dishonouring to God?”

He says people tend to be more “pious”, by such a definition, because they “get the idea that God is up in heaven with a sort of tally list — almost like the Santa Claus song. ‘He’s making a list and checking it twice.’”

This, he contends, is not a concept in the Bible. “It becomes more of a nightmare than a dream come true, because if God is actually tracking naughty and nice, none of us measure up — we’re all on the naughty list.”

While church members give Christmas gifts to one another and decorate their homes: “The significance of the gift is that mankind received the greatest gift in the coming of Christ.”

Gift giving can problematic, though, he says, because some people “go overboard” with it. ne of the first things Mr Welkner will do on Christmas Morning is: “Attack that a little bit” and encourage people who are not regular churchgoers to assess their levels of devotion.

However, more than anything, Christmas, he says, is a celebration. “On Christmas morning we remember the good news, the gospel, that God has come into the world in Christ, to redeem us, to forgive us and to purchase us back for himself.”

The church celebrates Christmas by: “Rejoicing in the fact that it remembers the breaking into our world of God, who came in human flesh and did that so those who would put their faith in him would be forgiven their sin and be united with God, as we were created to be.”

In other words, a rejoicing of “hope and peace”.

Hareth Al Bustani