As a child, Christmas was always an exciting time of the year for me. It started in earnest when the whole family (there were quite a few of us) walked up to our local Church for the Crib service on Christmas Eve and sang, in what I like to think was a melodic way, an array of well known Carols. If I was lucky, I would be chosen to carry one of the Nativity scene pieces down to the front of the alter and lay it in its rightful place as the story of Christmas slowly unfolded.
After the Church service we would return home and sit down as a family with bowls of steaming soup and crusty rolls. We had to save our appetite for the snacks that would be on offer a short while later as my parents always played host to friends who would pop in for a drink to toast the arrival of Christmas. There was always a sense of excitement and lots of laughter in the house.
Christmas Day was thrilling from start to finish - from awaiting the arrival of relatives, to opening our presents, the hilarity that ensued around the dinner table, the afternoon lull as we started to build/play with our new toys and the eventual sitting around the television with our warm sausage rolls, mince pies, Tunis cake and/or slices of Christmas cake.
This happened every year, even into adulthood, until Simon and I had our own little family and it made sense to remain at home with them for Christmas and create our own special experiences for them. But still we were surrounded by family. This time the rest of the family came to our house on Christmas Eve and we were the ones that plied them with food and alcohol until late at night, played various games together and laughed until our sides hurt.
Now it was the turn of our children to leave a little drink and snack out by the fireplace for Santa, along with a little something for the reindeer, before heading off to bed. We would spend Christmas morning alone with the children and eat dinner as a small family unit, but then the hoardes would descend upon us again mid afternoon to continue where we had left off the night before.
As an expat, you don't have the extended family to share Christmas with anymore and therefore it is a whole different experience. The very thing that has always made this time of year so very special is missing. An afternoon Skype on the big day just doesn't cut it!!
Add to that the fact that we are living in a Muslim country that doesn't celebrate Christmas and I'm sure you will understand my maudlinness. I want to walk into the shopping centre and hear Christmas music playing, see all the seasonal food products and gifts in the windows, even fight the crowds in a last minute dash to buy additional gifts, and to generally soak up the atmosphere that you only find in the build up to Christmas. I can not find that experience here. If you look hard enough you can visit the Hotels when they have the lighting of their Christmas trees and hear a couple of carols sung. The kids can also go and decorate gingerbread houses but other than that there is very little on offer to help build that sense of anticipation and one aisle of Christmas decorations in the Supermarket hardly inspires me. The school even has to use the term Festive Fair, not Christmas Fair, to describe their annual event at the end of November, as reference to the religious event is not allowed here.
For the past 2 years we have found ourselves travelling to Dubai in the week before the 25th, just to try and find that little bit of Christmas magic, and in part it has worked. We have then returned to Doha for the big day itself. Last year we went to a Christmas Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. We were there with a big group of friends and sure enough had a really lovely day, but somehow there was something missing and it just wasn't the same.
This year we stayed at home in the Villa for Ethan's first Christmas, just the 6 of us, and Simon collected our pre-ordered turkey with all the trimmings from the Movenpick Hotel at Midday (costing QR400/approx £75). The kids had loads of presents to open as we tried to make up for all those gifts they would have got in the past from other family members, but didn't have this year. We also downloaded some Christmas films to watch together and let the kids eat whatever sugary treats they wanted, but unfortunately I felt that, even though the kids seemed excited and happy, there was still something missing........
For me, Christmas is a time for entire families to be together, from the very youngest members, right through to the oldest generations and when that can't happen then the magical sparkle of the Festive season just doesn't seem to shine so brightly somehow.