Foreigners feel Christmas in the air in Saudi Arabia

Unable to travel home because of the pandemic, expatriates find signs of the festive season all around

Saudi Arabia’s Christian expatriates are discovering the Christmas spirit in the kingdom this year, as coronavirus restrictions make travel home difficult.

In response to more Christians celebrating the festive season in the country, local businesses and cafes stepped in to help people get into the festive mood, with decorations and promotions.

Those who previously spent Christmas in Saudi Arabia say there is much to look forward to.

"Last year during Christmas and [Gregorian] new year, the whole city was lit up and I felt like I was back home in Sweden, there was life and joy in the air," said Liv, 35, a Swedish citizen living in Riyadh.

Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh on December 7, 2020. Until barely three years ago, such items were almost impossible to be openly sold in Saudi Arabia, where authorities have clipped the powers of the clerical establishment long notorious for enforcing Islamic traditions. For decades, Christmas sales were largely underground, and Christians from the Philippines, Lebanon and other countries celebrated the festival behind closed doors or in expat enclaves. / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE

“I felt so happy and welcomed in a way by the kingdom. I know locals have always been encouraging and warm during the holidays but this was like the whole country was celebrating with you.”

The kingdom has witnessed a number of changes over the past four years under the Saudi Vision 2030 programme laid out by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe. We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” King Salman said while talking about Vision 2030.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia held its very first Christian Mass, where dozens of Egyptian Coptic Christians attended a service at a tourist facility in Riyadh. After the ceremony, Father Polis Halim, spokesman for the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, said Saudi Arabia was showing "an admirable degree of tolerance that gives us a lot of hope”.

There are currently no definite plans to build churches in the kingdom.

Many expatriates said they plan to celebrate Christmas in the kingdom with family and friends, followed by a Christmas dinner or celebrations on Christmas Eve.

"My neighbours are Saudis and we have been friends for over seven years. Every year, they invite us for Eid and we invite them over Christmas or Thanksgiving. We have such a great time celebrating together," Celine Nassar, a French citizen living in Jeddah, told The National.

A Saudi engineer said celebrating every culture was natural in a country that has more than 10 million expatriates in a population of about 34 million.

“For most of us who are well travelled, we experience new cultures and adapt, but even for people like my family close to Al Baha, they partake and enjoy celebrations, be it from the east or west, India or England, doesn’t matter,” Saleh Alaqeel said.

“Saudis are known for their hospitality and we want all expats living in the country to feel comfortable, invited and loved.”

In 2018 Crown Prince Mohammed welcomed evangelical Christian leaders to the royal palace in Riyadh.

The paradigm shift allows the estimated 1.8 million Christians living in the kingdom, who have always had the freedom to practise their faith and rituals privately, to celebrate on a larger scale as more entertainment and cultural events are opened for the public.

Expatriates living in compounds in the kingdom usually enjoy more public celebrations.

“Living in a compound where you have a community of similar backgrounds usually helps us reminisce and celebrate together. We have Christmas dinners, karaoke, bowling and other fun games for families every year,” said Jason, 28, a South African living in Jeddah.

Arlene Attar, an American who has been celebrating Christmas in Saudi Arabia for more than 25 years, speaks fondly of the changes in the kingdom.

"The reason I like it is because it just shows acceptance of other religions. I shared the experiences I had growing up with my children and now grandchildren," she said.

One of these shared experiences is her popular cookie exchange, which she considers a Christmas tradition. "It's a cookie exchange with over 40 people usually, but this year due to Covid-19 we had only 20. It's a great experience; we exchange cookies and recipes – adding new ones to a cookbook every year," Ms Attar told The National.

“At the end, my friends get to go home and share their baked goods with their kids who are really excited to try them. Every year, we try to add something, such as new decorations – adding to the spirit and just an informal way of acknowledging a lot of friends who are still Christians but married to Saudis,” she said.

Many Europeans living in Saudi Arabia will be travelling locally to celebrate Christmas.

“My friends and I will be travelling to Oasis Riyadh, a three-month event featuring a variety of outdoor recreational activities, and explore some of the wonders of the kingdom. I’m excited to experience winter Arabia and visit a few cities during our Christmas break since we aren’t going home this year,” said Maureen, 45, a Briton living in Jeddah.

Edible treats

Saudi bakeries and cafes are celebrating with their own take on Christmas pastries, doughnuts and decor.

Doughy Donuts in Riyadh and Cookie Bites in Jeddah offer seasonal flavours, designs and vegan options for Christmas.

Cozy, a cafe in Riyadh, created a festive set-up with a fireplace, snowman and warm winter drinks to set the mood.

Erum Kharkowa, owner of the 4kharkowa vegan brand in Jeddah, said Christmas is part of her culture and a reminder of home.

"It reminds me of London and this year I will be doing a vegan version of the beef Wellington and of course offer a selection of gingerbread, gingersnaps, snicker doodles and snowflake sugar cookies," she told The National.

This year, Christmas in the kingdom will be something to write home about.

“It is the first time my kids saw the snowman and Christmas tree installations outdoors in public areas,” said Mira Beydoun, 32, a Lebanese in Jeddah.

“I felt in an instant, that we have come a long way. Saudi Arabia has changed, it is more open and you can just feel it embracing the world, " she said.