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How We Expats Celebrate the Holidays in Dubai

by Ann Benjamin Dec 17, 2016

Given a choice, I would always prefer to spend my holidays in the desert. In the ten years we’ve been in the region, we’ve never gone home to the States for Christmas, and more often than not, have been in Dubai for both December 25th and December 31st. Quite honestly, there is no better place to be. In Dubai, the weather is absolutely perfect to be outside, the traffic is considerably reduced, everyone is (mostly) in a good mood, and there are options to celebrate in any number of ways — you can break the bank, or have a simple gathering with friends. After all, in a city where the majority of people are living away from their home countries and families, the holidays are a time to get together with other ‘orphans’ and celebrate together.

Here are some of my favorite ‘only in Dubai’ moments during the ‘festive’ season (yes, the word ‘Christmas’ is rarely used in marketing or other commercial capacities in the Emirates).

Epic Christmas Day brunches

While our brunch culture is one of the strongest in the world, Christmas Day brunches in Dubai are some of the most over the top. The best locations are in such high demand that they usually fill up in October (where guests have to pay in full) and I’ve heard rumors of waiting lists go into the hundreds for what is considered the best brunch spots in the city. Most hotels tend to opt for not one or two restaurants, but opening up doors to ALL their venues for a combined feast that is practically overwhelming — I once went to a brunch where there was an entire room dedicated to cheese. With the weather perfect for dining outdoors, brunching al fresco with friends and family is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

The best part of all? No clean up! Simply get yourself home, then sign in to Skype to have a rather ‘merry’ conversation with the family who are just waking up.

Santa on a camel

Who needs reindeer? After all, you haven’t really experienced Christmas in the desert until you’ve seen Santa on a camel. It’s a highlight. Trust me.

Walks on the beach

If you manage to sort a big meal at home (or order one from a local hotel — no shame in that game), there’s no better way to walk it off than a trip to the beach. Last year, my husband and I started our Christmas morning with a long walk on our local beach, and it’s a tradition we’re going to carry forward to this season. Should you venture to your closest beach, you’ll see extended families and others out enjoying the day.

Christmas Markets

Sure, there are the traditional Christmas Markets in Europe, but those are cold and more difficult and expensive to get to. Instead, each year Dubai puts on a variety of Winter Markets, including the Dubai Winter Festival (held at Dubai Media City) and the Al Habtoor Christmas Market. These venues have different local artisans and stalls and usually some form of fake snow or ice rink — certainly a big hit with the under ten crowd.

Dubai’s festive season isn’t so in your face.

Yes, there are decorated trees and fancy store windows, but there is not a radio station that only plays Christmas music. Essentially, you can be as festive as you want, without the usual pressure. After all, in the Emirates, we also celebrate Diwali, Eid, National Day, and other important cultural holidays.

Awesome fireworks

Seriously. In case you missed it, on NYE 2014, the Palm Jumeirah saw 479,651 shells fired in just six minutes on New Year’s Eve, at a rate of almost 80K shells per minute and 1,332 fireworks per second. In the recent past, I’ve had the opportunity to be on the Palm for a house party, a rooftop party with friends, and at the base of the Address Hotel (before it burned down) to see the amazing display off the Burj Khalifa. It’s never been too cold, and other than being (almost) extorted for a taxi fare home, there’s never been a bad night. NYE is a night where you can go to a gala affair at a hotel, or like I’m going to do this year, rock out with Coldplay at an outdoor venue in Abu Dhabi.

Where is your favorite place in the world to celebrate the holidays?

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