Sunday, December 2, 2012

On the Second Day of Advent: Christmas in the Middle East

In 1987, when I worked the Jebel Ali Hotel in Dubai, I had to work on Christmas Day.  I'd asked about a December vacation but at one of our busiest times, it was out of the question.

I've read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol every December since I was 10 and that first Dubai December, I read it at lunch-time sitting on the beach -- a bit odd being in full secretarial garb among the swim-suited German holiday-makers but I tried not to let it bother me.  When sadness overwhelmed me or I missed my family, which was often in those days, I shed a few self-pitying tears before pulling myself together.  Life goes on, right?

But I did resent working on Christmas Day.  I became a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner" myself, especially when I saw that although the hotel was packed with international tourists and Dubai expatriates who did get the day off, there was no reason for me to be in my office.  Nothing needed to be done in my office that day.  Oh, I could have done some typing or caught up on filing but the phone didn't ring, no one visited, nothing had to be done that couldn't wait until the next day.  I paced around the lobby, scowling at folks enjoying their Christmas day, whining about my hard luck.  "Humbug!" I mumbled to no one in particular, "Humbug!"  Of course, it wasn't fair for one person to be off when every other staff member was on overload but that didn't occur to me until quite late in the dayIn retrospect, I was a thirty year-old of breath-taking immaturity.

I should tell you here that the conventional Victorian Christmas was alive and well in Dubai, celebrated in hotels such as the Jebel Ali; and while most European Christian expats living on the banks of the Persian Gulf observed the season in their apartments or villas, many of them took advantage of holiday merriment at their favorite hotel. 

The Jebel Ali Hotel was famous for its Christmas display.  Oh, how hard the staff worked to make it perfect for the guests!  In the lobby, there was a life-size replica of Santa’s sleigh suspended precariously above the vast expanse of marble floor. There were Norwegian spruces with blinking lights surrounded by fake snow.  Chef Lee and his patisserie team build a gingerbread house just like the one I pictured in Hansel and Gretel; its scent permeated the entire place.  I recall carolers dressed in full Victorian costume singing about “the bleak mid-winter” with sweat dripping down their faces on to their woolen scarves and mittens...or did I dream that?  At the same time, outside the hotel, through the back windows, you could see youngsters splashing about in the swimming pool; their parents sipping pina coladas with colorful umbrellas at the swim-up bar; half-naked sunbathers in loungers coating themselves with sun-oil while palm trees swayed in the warm breezes of the Arabian sea.  Every now and then, the two worlds would collide as sun-burned, sand-coated children with plastic swim-rings around their middles and stripy towels around their necks wandered through the snow-covered lobby to get roasted chestnuts.  Or as red-suited Santa himself -- the English sales manager, if I remember correctly -- sack in hand, sweat streaming down his face, would walk across the beach volleyball courts calling, “Ho-ho-ho!” 

I've often wondered: did anyone catch the irony that Jesus was more likely born in the simple sandy world outside the window with the heat and the date palms than he was in the air-conditioned indoor world of hot chocolate; roaring fires and ornamented fir trees

"Humbug!" Christmas Day 1987, Jebel Ali Hotel

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