Bloodshed, flooding, people fleeing persecution, the fodder of biblical stories from the Holy Land. Only sadly they’re not ancient stories trotted out for the Christmas season. They are present day Christmastime in the birthplace of Christmas. But Noel in its current incarnation is supposed to be about fun. And really, why shouldn’t it be? A virgin birth isn’t a downer, after all. But this season’s headlines from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, those places that fill up religious texts, are hardly the stuff that make you want to decorate cookies and write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a new Xbox One. You can understand why Christmas-celebrating people around the world choose to tune out the modern day Holy Land stories. They are not fun.
But there is a part of the Middle East that didn’t make it into the holy books, where not only is it peaceful enough for one celebrate the holiday season, one is encouraged to do so. By shopping. I love Christmastime in Dubai. The weather is the usual sunny stuff but the heat is pleasantly mild, and the humidity is usually on holiday somewhere else.
If you’re more hardcore about needing a Christmas TV special atmosphere, there are the heavily air conditioned malls, which year round feel like a blizzard is just around the corner. Plus, the malls are festooned with some of the best Christmas decorations south of the North Pole, including the finest fake snow and ice on earth. Certainly enough that Santa Claus feels at home at Dubai’s Christmas parties. And if you insist on real manmade snow, there is the indoor ski slope, transformed into an Alpine Christmas village. (Normally, it’s just an Alpine village where the snow never melts.) Forget Moses crossing the desert—in Dubai, he’d do it in style and without breaking a sweat.
Best of all, not far from the ski slope, there is stollen day at the Mall of the Emirates, when tables as far as the eye can see from Harvey Nichols down past Tiffany’s and beyond, are lined with stollen. People in elf hats even offer us free stollen samples, this sweet roll that is the greatest invention of Germany after cars and gummy bears. Dubai Christmas follows the city’s principle of do it big or don’t do it at all. It can’t be a little fun. It should be a lot of fun. It can’t be 100 stollen but rather hundreds. Dubai does birthday parties big, no matter whose birthday we’ve decided to celebrate.
The religious has been deleted from Christmas—there is no devout imagery, no crèches, no wise men. Just wise shoppers. And some reckless ones, too. No pretense of anything else but keeping Christmas commercially honest. Competition between the blinding number of sales signs and billboards and the Christmas decorations is friendly and beneficial to both.
This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t bring out the best in Dubai. Profits from the stollens are for charity. And the festive season builds some multicultural community fun for everyone, including for those who can’t afford most of the items the malls, which in reality is the majority of the population. Including the workers who built the malls and the team making the stollens, who are Filipinos not Germans. No one talks about the floods in the Philippines or other troubles in the rest of the world and we all get along. Indeed, in this country where 100% of the native population is Muslim but every religion invented has people living here, the absence of religious depictions works out great. Without the religious icons on display, everyone joins in the true spirit of fun and oblivion without feeling left out on faith grounds.
I heard a story once that the shape of a stollen represents the hump on the camel caravans that carried presents to Jesus when he was born. The dried fruit and raisins represent the jewels and gifts. Who knows if there is any truth to that stollen story, but if you need a gift, there are plenty of places to get one here. And if you’re looking for a camel, better to exit the mall and go to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which at this time is gearing up for the camel beauty pageant. And for a while you can forget about camels and people elsewhere who 2,000 years later still need a caravan to bring them good news. Now that’s a holiday season everyone can hope for.