JEDDAH: Just a few short years ago, Christmas was a low-key affair in Saudi Arabia, celebrated by expatriates behind closed doors. Nowadays, thanks to an environment and culture of religious tolerance, the festive period is marked openly and enjoyed by expatriates and citizens alike.
In one of Jeddah’s busiest neighborhoods, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” wafts from a local bakery, where patrons snack on snowflake-shaped sugar cookies and gingerbread men, and sip hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.
Less than a decade ago, scenes like these were unlikely to be found anywhere in Saudi Arabia, a country where public celebration of Christmas was unthinkable. Now its symbols, songs and traditions have been absorbed into the commercial and social life of Saudi cities.
To be sure, non-Islamic religious occasions such as Christmas were observed in Saudi Arabia but largely in secret or behind the high walls of compounds occupied only by expats and operated by private firms.
A 1971 article, titled “Christmas in Dhahran,” published in the Texas-based Saudi Aramco magazine, told the story of how the holiday was celebrated in the “heart of the Muslim Middle East,” with one big difference — they used real camels for their Christmas pageants.
The article notes how the oil worker compounds of Dhahran were once referred to in the US press as “a typical southern California suburb, transplanted 8,500 miles east of New York.”
It went on to describe how, in 1970, a Christmas pageant was held at the local softball field and “drew an audience of 2,000 persons, most wrapped in blankets against the desert chill.”
The pageant featured men, women and children, a chorus of angels, and three stately ships of the desert, one for each of the three wise men.
One of the wise men, apprehensive about riding a camel, expressed his concern to Nasser Fahad Dossary, a Saudi camel master and veteran of many pageants. “Not to worry,” Nasser replied soothingly. “I haven’t lost a wise man yet.”
The windows and rooftops in these Aramco communities were decorated with wreaths, lights, reindeer, sleighs and snowmen. Residents were known to hold competitions to determine who had the best Christmas decorations.
Retired Aramco executive Ali M. Baluchi told Arab News in an interview in 2020 how he used to help his foreign colleagues prepare for their Christmas celebrations.
“Those days were nice and beautiful, and it reminds me of the good days we all shared and enjoyed together immensely,” he said.
Families in gated residential communities often had to get creative, seeking alternatives to the traditional Christmas tree — such as small palms decorated with ornaments — as Saudi customs long banned the import of evergreen conifers.
The traditional Christmas dinner was usually prepared for a small group of guests so as not to attract unwanted attention — even if the holiday staple of a roast turkey had to be supplemented with a more readily available alternative, like lamb.
Even though thousands of foreign workers and their families of various faith backgrounds have resided in Saudi Arabia for years, it was only very recently that the public practice of religions other than Islam was permitted.
In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled Saudi Vision 2030. With it came a raft of reforms that would unlock the Kingdom’s potential and create an ambitious, robust, and vibrant society with a diversified economy, prioritizing quality of life.
Over the past six years, Vision 2030 has created a culture of tolerance and openness. The Kingdom’s religious institutions are being restructured and its system of government, based on the teachings of the Qur’an, is being carefully re-examined.
The crown prince is charting a new and more modern course for the country, vowing to return to a “moderate Islam.” Saudi Arabia is “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method,” he said in an interview last year.
“We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”
At no other time is this unprecedented transformation in Saudi Arabia more obvious, perhaps, than at Christmas.
Today, cafes, restaurants, party supply stores and malls across the Kingdom are decked out with twinkling lights and decorations. Shoppers can find trees, reindeer headbands, Santa hats, colorful baubles of various shapes and sizes, Christmas-themed treats and gift wrap.
Christmas is not the only holiday being openly embraced. The symbols and paraphernalia of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve are also now widely available, again in a significant break with the past.
The growing acceptance of Christmas in the Kingdom has been a welcome development for the hospitality industry. Several five-star hotels and private catering companies now offer special Christmas dinners. Sometimes even Santa Claus makes an appearance.
Many embassies and consulates arrange Christmas parties for their staff and hold feasts of their respective nations’ favorite foods.
Speaking openly about Christmas remains uncomfortable for many in the Kingdom, wary of past restrictions. Some expats and visitors, aware of religious sensitivities, still believe it is best to be discreet.
Nevertheless, although Christmas is not an Islamic tradition, many Muslims believe it is a time to share the joy of those who love to gather with friends, family, and neighbors.
“As Muslims, we understand that the holidays are not part of our religion, but because we are a nation with many nationalities, we celebrate our holidays with everyone and we celebrate theirs,” one Saudi woman told Arab News.
Another Saudi said: “It’s all about the gift of giving. It’s a common message, and doesn’t the Bible say ‘love thy neighbor?’ It’s the same in Islam. It’s a point of connection between faiths as Islam stresses to respect our neighbors and love them like family.
“It’s a common religious value shared by people of all religions. And Christmas is colorful. It’s fun, and celebrating it here (in Saudi Arabia) with Muslims and Christians alike is a sign of both piety and religious tolerance.”