A week and a world apart: Qatar National Day and Christmas in Doha
I might be sat in Doha, but I’m in same state as millions of parents with young families everywhere: a little over-fed, a little under-slept, having made it through another hectic festive season.
Here in Qatar it’s a full-on week of celebrations, starting with the Qatar National Day (QND) public holiday on the 18th (the day after term finishes).
QND is a big deal here. The planning starts months in advance. Flags drape every public building and billboard; patriotic merchandise (pins, mugs and – being ‘winter’ – scarves) suddenly appears everywhere.
Having started the day itself watching the annual parade on local TV, we were worried about heading out later as we feared even worse carmageddon than usual. But the word on the street (aka #Doha) was that things were pretty clear, perhaps indicating a bigger than usual expat exodus for the holidays.
The roads, it turns out, were deserted. We arrived at the cultural centre at Katara in a fraction of the time it would normally take us, where an area of the beachfront had been taken over by food stalls, games, cultural attractions and flags as far as the eye could see.
From there we walked along the sea front on an idyllic day, drinking karak and taking in the uniquely Gulf annual parade of for-one-day only decorated vehicles. There were some particularly impressive designs this year…
To see the pride and passion that locals have for their Emir and country – and the increasingly extravagant ways they bring that to life via decals – is genuinely inspiring. Beat that, St George’s Day (which isn’t even a public holiday in England).
If it is in the nature of expat life to subtly dial up the patriotism for your home nation a notch or two, then we English still come nowhere close to the levels of pride on display here.
Third time lucky
Striking the balance between other celebrations and Christmas isn’t just a problem for local hotels. In a regular year, we have the triple whammy of National Day, Kid A’s birthday (suddenly I am the parent of an 11-year-old; I don’t remember approving that request) and Christmas all falling in one week, so it’s busy enough.
But this year we hosted an early Christmas brunch for 20 at our villa, so we’d gone full tinsel much earlier than usual.
Adding packing + travel to that mix seemed like an avoidable step too far (and a crazily expensive one, coming so soon after our return visit to Europe in the summer), so as with the two previous years since we relocated, we chose to spend Christmas here in Qatar.
Is it different? Of course. Do I miss the wintry Christmases of my youth? In a nostalgic yearning-for-a-simpler-time-that-probably-never-existed, yes, kind of.
But it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with sunny Christmases, either.
When I met Mrs LC, her family were living in Botswana. So, faced with the option of spending the holidays hunching my shoulders against the frosty British damp or basking in African sunshine, I chose the latter.
The downside of the season here is that it springs up out of nowhere. The lack of festive sensory bombardment from the moment the clocks go back is welcome (and as a parent, I’m doubly thankful), but it also robs you of any context and anticipation for the big day itself.
It’s sunny and October, and then it’s sunny and December 25th, and then it’s Sunday and it’s back to work.
So the carols and Now! Christmas CDs go into heavy rotation, the fake plastic tree is now assembled like a Formula 1 pit stop and the Muppets are on TV, but it requires deliberate effort. There’s zero chance of getting festive by osmosis here.
That’s not to say things haven’t improved every year since we arrived, both in the availability of products and in the general sense of ‘Is it ok to mention the C-word?’
Here in Qatar, with its more conservative culture, Christmas is still a relatively low profile affair (something the British Embassy was keen to remind us of). But the consensus seems to be that all the non-religious elements of the holiday, from tinsel to turkey, Santa to snowmen, are welcome – if not exactly encouraged.
Our first Christmas here came after we’d been expats for only a few short months. It was the closest I’ve got to being homesick.
Desperate for something, anything recognizably festive, we spent a hilariously miserable journey in the dark trying to find the British Embassy which was hosting a carol concert. But the Embassy’s website said one location and the online map said another, and we didn’t know our way around this new part of town; the Embassy switchboard was closed for the day, and the only people we knew who would know how to get there, were already singing away and not answering their phones.
So, after an hour of fruitlessly driving the family around previously unexplored parts of Doha, we abandoned the mission completely, carols unsung and festive tensions running a tad high.
O Come (To The Desert) All Ye Faithful
Fast forward to this year; it’s the weekend before Christmas and we found ourselves heading into the desert on the trail of an impromptu expat carol concert.
On arrival at the scrubby patch of nothing much, about 40 minutes outside the city, we were wondering if we had come to the right place when another 4×4 pulled up alongside us and asked us if we were also here for the singing. We needn’t have worried.
Before long, there were hundreds of people everywhere: kids chasing footballs; barbecues, coolers, tables and picnics started appearing from the backs of an endless line of vehicles.
(That was when it dawned on us that, having only arrived with four folding chairs and 12 mince pies, that we are terrible campers.)
I honestly wasn’t expecting much from the trip when we set off (the memory of our original failed carol hunt still burns deep), but it turned out to be one of the most fun things I’ve done here.
The sun set quickly but spectacularly, and then from nowhere, the singing started. There was something magical about an instant crowd in the desert, wearing Santa hats and singing a capella versions of Christmas songs and carols, lit by an impressive array of torch apps.
Afterwards, the kids charred marshmallows by candlelight and all seemed strangely right with the world.
Some families stayed on to camp overnight in the desert but, by and large, the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had formed, each escaping into the Al Khor night knowing they’d been part of something magical.
So this is Christmas…
If you’re staying, you have to work hard for your Christmas here. Planning needs to start way earlier than you’d think.
Max out your baggage allowance buying gifts during your summer holiday. Buy that jar of cranberry sauce in Carrefour in August, because you don’t know if there’ll be any more stock before the year’s end. Book that brunch in September.
But most of all, accept it will be different and be thankful.
Be thankful for spending Christmas lunch on a beachside terrace in the sunshine; for not being separated by illness or visas or logistics from your family.
If the worst thing about your holiday is Marks & Spencer’s 400% price hike on imported Christmas cakes, then you’re doing very well indeed.
I hope you had a happy Christmas wherever you’re reading this, and that you managed to find a quiet moment to count your blessings, before being brought back down to earth by stepping barefoot onto some recently-unwrapped Lego.