How are some people in Saudi Arabia spending their third Christmas?

Cafes and restaurants have transformed into winter wonderlands

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This is the third year that Saudi Arabia has permitted Christmas decorations to be displayed publicly in shop windows.

A holiday, which was once marked behind closed doors, has been celebrated more openly by retailers and residents since 2020, when laws were changed regarding decorations for religious festivals.

One store, Homegrown, is hosting a festive-themed event this year.

“It reminds me of London and the snow. I got myself a gingerbread latte and my friend got a hot chocolate with s'mores," said Hatoon, who was enjoying a beverage at the Jeddah store.

"The winter collections are velvet and very christmas-y, it reminds me of Christmas in the UK.”

In the past, non-Muslim celebrations were not publicly acknowledged in the kingdom. But soon after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 was announced, religious and other festivals have been celebrated.

“I have been here for eight years and I have seen the country evolve into something that made it more likeable for expatriates,” said Myka Monasterial, a registered nurse.

In the past, Ms Monasterial would exchange gifts, sing Christmas carols and hang DIY decorations in her home. It was often hard to find festive ornaments on sale.

“But just two years back, I was so delighted that I witnessed the first Christmas decorations were installed in a shopping centre in Jeddah," she said

"It gives me joy and hope to be part of the country's move to be more open and acknowledge other traditions and culture.”

Christmas offers from Paul. Photo: Jahez

With the morality police disbanded, Saudi Arabia has been encouraging coexistence, acceptance and assimilation of different cultures in society, so that visitors and expats are not excluded.

“We celebrate Christmas with my neighbours and Saudi friends every year," said Simone Isabella, an Italian national living in Jeddah.

"Locals are very open to and have always been accepting of different faiths and celebrations — it just gives us another reason to dress up and exchange gifts really.

“This year we have secret Santa for our kids who are eagerly waiting for their gifts.”

While residential compounds have long hosted Christmas parties and events in private, a culture of tolerance is more keenly felt on the kingdom's streets this year.

Residing in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Nour Dajani said: "I love Christmas! As a Saudi-German national, I am grateful to be able to experience so many traditions from both sides of my family.” Her grandmother makes it a point that they celebrate and appreciate all cultures.

“It's not just from a religious perspective, its just one more reason for us all to come together and share our favourite winter dishes like duck or goose with stuffing and potatoes on the side," she said.

A hoard of retail events and offers

Cafes and restaurants have transformed into winter wonderlands, with decorations and ornaments on display.

Retail giant Starbucks is offering seasonal holiday beverages in holiday-themed cups and French artisanal bakery Paul Cafe has been selling yule log-shaped and Christmas-themed cakes and patisseries.

“Some of our local stores and schools also celebrate Christmas,” said Rana Sabbah, a Lebanese national living in Jeddah. “I usually buy the gingerbread house DIYs for my daughters and their friends just as a fun activity where they decorate and eat them afterwards. Children get to participate in fun games and activities in their school this week."

Saudi supermarkets are also selling Christmas trees and other decorations.

But the word “Christmas” rarely appears in shops and cafes. Instead “festive flavours” and “holiday-themed” tags appear.

A resident of Khamis Mushait, Jacqueline Hamou said there was no mention of Christmas 35 years ago when she moved to the kingdom, except in compounds reserved for foreign residents.

“Now, I see Turkeys and festive food in supermarkets,” she said.

"This year we will be with friends and maybe order food from the Four Seasons Hotel's full festive menu.”

The London-based Winter Wonderland amusement park is also back in Riyadh for another year.

Visitors can enjoy festive-themed food stalls, along with an occasional twinkling reindeer or oversized gingerbread house. The largest ice skating rink in the region is also proving a hit.

“For us, Christmas is just an occasion to celebrate with expatriates who live in Saudi — to welcome them and it's a great occasion for children to have fun,” sais Amani Hussami, a Saudi national living in Jeddah.

“We take gifts and sweets to our friends' homes because they celebrate."

Updated: December 21, 2022, 7:50 AM