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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reviving the Yuletide Spirit in Sunny Baku

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- I've just returned from a frantic week in London, where Christmas fever has taken hold.

We'd hardly stepped off the plane at Gatwick Airport before a throng of choir boys dressed as elves and led by a well-known member of Parliament regaled us with "Silent Night." Even the immigration desk, where a bad-tempered official was interrogating a group of Ukrainians, had been decked out with holly and baubles.

This year, we're spending Christmas in Azerbaijan. At home, the shops have been selling Christmas cards and luxury plum puddings since the end of the summer sales. Here, you'd be hard-pressed to find a turkey on Christmas Eve.

As a mostly Muslim nation, Azeris don't go in for Christmas. Tuesday and Wednesday are ordinary working days. I tried to explain the concept of Boxing Day to our neighbor, but she just stared back at me and shook her head.

There were no singing elves at Baku's Bina airport when we flew in on Saturday, but there were plenty of members of parliament. Passengers were told to remain in their seats because a VIP was coming off the plane.

A long line of dignitaries bowed and scraped as Ramiz Mekhtiyev, the head of the presidential administration in Azerbaijan, his wife and children emerged from first class. Behind them came a troupe of stewardesses laden with suitcases and hat boxes and furs. No wonder there was no room for anyone else in first class.

The Mekhtiyev family was waved through passport control and the last I saw it was climbing into a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. So much for Azerbaijan's elite throwing off its corrupt image and embracing democracy, as it keeps saying it has.

We spent the whole of Sunday trying to find a Christmas tree. You can buy artificial ones by the truckload at the East Bazaar next to the railway station. Azeris put their trees up at the end of December to celebrate New Year's Eve. But real ones are thin on the ground.

Eventually we tracked one down to an out-of-town Turkish hardware store. There were only two Christmas trees in the shop and both had seen better days.

"Will you be getting any more in?" I asked the man spraying leaf gloss and something called Revive all over the branches.

"Don't think so," he said. "They've come all the way from Turkey through Georgia in the back of a lorry, and they don't travel well."

We shelled out $70 for the less limp of the two trees, which we've propped up in the corner of our sitting room. It wouldn't surprise me to find Mekhtiyev and his family were having theirs flown in from Norway. Happy Christmas!

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.