Christmas is a regular working day in the Middle East. The shops are open, business is ongoing, and heavy traffic continues to transverse Doha’s highways and byways.

There’s no tinsel, Christmas lights or Bony M blasting out Mary’s Boy Child in the mega malls. There’s certainly no sign of snow or any frantic last-minute shopping. And ne’er a babe in a manger or even so much as three wise men on camels (though I had hoped it so) in this part of the Arabian Peninsula.

But Christmas does come to Qatar.

One of displays at the Church of Epiphany in Doha, Qatar.

It comes with Christians of every nation who have temporarily settled here.

These are the Brits with their Christmas cards, stockings, Brussel sprouts and turkeys; the South Africans with their hearty hospitality and Christmas Day braais; the Indian families who open gifts from midnight and eat breyani at 3am; the Europeans who expend time and energy on decorating their homes with Christmas trees …

Each nation and family bring their own Christmas traditions to this Muslim state.

Since about 90 percent of the 3 million people who live in Qatar are migrants, Christmas is still very much celebrated. Publicly, the coming of Christ may be subtle. But at home and in church, it’s eagerly embraced.

Residents in our compound happily share their Christmas decor and traditions.

We do so as Christians, but also as we remember our own Christmas traditions back home, adapting them in line with our circumstances.

A brief aside

(It’s early January right now, and many of us are having Christmas/Summer holiday withdrawal symptoms. We’re back at the workplace, and wondering just how all those high days and holidays passed us by so quickly.

And even more so for us ex-pats in Qatar where the football paraphernalia is also coming down along with the baubles, tinsel and Christmas fairy.

The Christmas decorations aren’t the only things being removed … the massive visuals of top soccer players on the skyscrapers in West Bay are also being scraped off.

We’re not quite bereft, but certainly there’s a void of sorts, following 64 games with 1.4 million visitors all successfully hosted in our adopted city of Doha. Oh, that we could bottle the best of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

What better way to capture the spirit of Christmas in Qatar then, than by jotting it all down?)

In the shops

As a Muslim country, Christmas is not recognised. To do so, would be against their own monotheistic belief.

There was outrage on social media in October last year in the lead-up to Christmas with claims by shoppers that all festive-related goodies had been removed from the shelves of one leading chain by authorities.

It was all hearsay, so I have no way of verifying if it is true (short of phoning the store).

Those in-the-know (that’s those who have lived here for more than a decade) however, tell me this sort of thing happens annually. Retailers bring their Christmas fare out too soon and are asked to wait.

While Ikea creatively introduced elves, stars and firs throughout their displays, the popular Dollar Shop, for example, let Santa take over. Anything and everything relating to the season to be jolly was available in the final weeks before 25 December.

But elsewhere there were no Christmas specials or Christmas carols sounding forth. (Can I admit that I missed Boney M?)

Here, there’s just the regular call to prayer for the Muslim faithful.

In fact, there is really no inkling of Christmas, unless you know where to look. You could be forgiven for thinking Santa does not have Qatar on its delivery schedule come Christmas Eve.

We did spot these ceramics of Father Christmas on sale in Souq Waqif, Doha’s traditional market.

At home

At home, however, it is a very different story.

Regardless of whether folk live in a compound, a high-rise or villa, the tell-tale signs are evident through the net curtains, outdoor decorations and passing music.

We happily celebrated Christmas in the privacy of our home.

Our Spanish neighbours had a massive, beautifully decorated Christmas tree in their lounge window while others popped welcoming Christmas wreaths onto their front doors.

We attended a number of Christmas parties where the cooler weather enabled outdoor gatherings wearing Christmas hats and other festive-season attire.

There were lights aplenty too.

And for us in particular, came the joy of having our daughters open stockings and pressies under the tree. (Their absence is, of course, part of the “emptiness” we all now experience in living apart from those who are nearest and dearest to us.)     

Each nationality and family bring their own traditions. Friends from Ireland and Singapore encourage guests to decorate Christmas desserts.

At church

Apart from the Christmas decorations, the Church of Epiphany at the Religious Complex in Qatar also displayed the flags of every nation competing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

By 1 December, the Christmas decorations were up at church, joining the flags of those nations competing in the FIFA 2022 World Cup.

This was mirrored by many of the other churches that worship within the Religious Complex in Qatar. In fact, once ensconced in the grounds of the complex, it’s hard to believe you are in a Muslim country. Here we’re free to worship.

There were umpteen Christmas diplays within the Religious Complex in Qatar, an area set aside by the Qatari government to allow “people of the book” to meet.

This Christmas Day, despite it being a Sunday and a working day, the surrounding car park with its 8000 bays was completely full, along with the adjacent open lots of land. In fact, at times the traffic was backed up for about 1.5km as people queued in their cars to get into the area given to the Christian community by the Qatari government.

Service after service is held to meet the spiritual needs of the thousands who attend and worship at the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches here. By way of example, the Anglican Centre saw 56 000 people visit its venues during December. The Catholic numbers are four to five times greater than this.

Our service was almost full on Christmas Day for an Anglican service that is not unlike any other celebrated in South Africa, but come 31 December and even into early January it’s different.

Cross-over service

There I was waiting the New Year’s Eve party invitations, only to learn that I’d have to turn them all down. (You do know, I am kidding …)

I am not kidding about the church service, however.

In Qatar, and with particular nationalities, cross-over services are popular. This is a service in which you say goodbye and give thanks to the one year and pray and welcome in the next one.

This is what we did with more than 100 faithful Christians from 10.30pm and into the new year, and should have continued in another service with the Tamils. We didn’t make the latter because folk from the first service took up the invitation for tea and coffee afterwards … and it was after 1am before we realised it. We’d be an hour late for the second service, one in which the congregants make pledges for the year head, and which ended well after 4am!

The laugh was on me this year. For the first time, I saw the New Year in at church! Cross-over services are popular among many Christian nations in Qatar.

Driving home, I remember smiling to myself. While I never ever contemplated being at church for New Year, it was stranger still, not worrying about drunk drivers. (As you may know, alcohol is a no-no in the Islamic faith. This is not to say that people do not drink here, but residents rarely risk driving after drinking).   

Christmas continues

Another quirk … is that Christmas, from a church perspective, continues into the New Year.

Our church, the Church of Epiphany, celebrated its birthday on 6 January, with a nativity play by the Friday School children (Friday is Sunday here!), carols and a sermon focused on the wise men.

The children share the story of the birth of Jesus.

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