How do the Saudis celebrate Christmas? Quietly, but less.

DJEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The lights were on, the guest list was established, and Santa’s hats were ready to go. For the first Christmas party they would openly host in Saudi Arabia, Umniah Alzahery and Mike Bounacklie even bought an ugly (but, of course, adorable) Christmas sweater for their Bernese Mountain Dog, Nova.

The only problem was the tree, which they must have whispered to get from a gift store owner who quietly produced one in a dark room.

“Everything was off limits and we were confused, but Santa has always been a nice guy,” said Ms Alzahery, 35, recalling how her mother used to pass presents in her bed every December 25. when she was growing up – this in a country famous for its ultra-conservative form of Islam. “It’s not snowing here, but I don’t think Christmas has a place, honestly. “

The Saudis and their government have long played peek-a-boo over certain behaviors that are officially banned but widely prevalent in private. These days, however, Christmas – long celebrated secretly among foreign workers and by a few Saudis with connections to the West – is emerging from the shadows.

In the past year or so, storefronts in the starchy capital Riyadh have started displaying wink, wink, red and green gift boxes and advent calendars, while cafes distribute gingerbread cookies and florists advertise “holiday trees”.

This is all possible thanks to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who waged a disastrous war against Yemen and was accused of ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but won over millions of young Saudis by relaxing some of the religious rules. strictest, presenting what he hopes will be seen as a newly tolerant and moderate Saudi Arabia in attracting foreign investment and tourists.

In recent years, the government has granted more freedoms to Saudi women (while locking up women’s rights activists), introduced once-banned entertainment like electronic music concerts (while silencing conservative dissidents) and muzzled the virtue and vice police, which used to occasionally launch raids on non-Muslim religious gatherings. Many Saudis expect even alcohol, once among the redder of the lines, to become legal soon.

But while most of the changes were handed down from above by the Crown Prince, they went smoothly in part because many ordinary Saudis had long introduced them into their lives.

Deprived of cinemas at home, the Saudis would travel to Bahrain or fly to Dubai to see films. In liberal circles, men and women mixed freely in private even though they remained separated in public, while women went without a hijab abroad. And some Saudis who had lived or traveled in the West, or learned about Western traditions from friends or pop culture, dressed for Halloween, had birthday parties for their children, and exchanged gifts on Christmas Day.

All very calmly.

On a recent evening, Maha Aljishi, 36, and her 13-year-old daughter were strolling along Riyadh Boulevard, a huge new shopping, dining and entertainment complex that draws crowds of Saudis into the early hours of the morning each night, when they came across a giant gingerbread house and a herd of glittering reindeer.

These were the kind of decorations Ms. Aljishi and her relatives once feared they would get caught at home. Ms. Aljishi, who studied in the United States, decorates a small Christmas tree every year that she used to hide when guests came to dinner.

“Am I in Saudi Arabia? Mrs. Aljishi wondered aloud the boulevard. “Is this a dream? “

Her daughter asked what she meant.

“I said, ‘Just a few years ago this was all haram,’” Ms. Aljishi recalls, using the Arabic word meaning prohibited by Islamic law.

Of course, Christmas is still officially haram in Saudi Arabia. Or perhaps, more exactly, like many social novelties that the authorities have not sanctioned but that the Saudis are increasingly emboldened to try, it is not yet fully haram.

Perhaps this explains why the word “Christmas” never appears on the Boulevard, nor in shops and cafes that sell gingerbread men (the British chain Costa Coffee), “festive flavors” (Starbucks). and candy-filled advent calendars (Bateel, a gourmet date retailer).

Once upon a time in the kingdom, hardly any holidays were allowed, rejected as pagan customs. This included most Muslim holidays, with the exception of the two major festivals of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, after the annual pilgrimage to La Mecca.

In other Arab countries in the region, many of which have Christian minorities, Christmas is a festive season even for some Muslims, who regard Jesus as an important prophet.

But for Saudi clerics, Halloween was a foreign import, Christmas was strictly taboo, and the New Year – because it did not fit the Islamic calendar, which differs from the Gregorian calendar – simply irrelevant. Even celebrating the Prophet’s birthday was forbidden; celebrating yours could qualify you as unfaithful.

Raids on non-Muslim religious gatherings, textbooks that insulted Christians and Jews by calling them “apes” or worse, and seizures of holiday decorations by customs officials have added to the atmosphere of intolerance.

Yet in addition to the Christmas festivities organized by foreigners, there have for years been a few low-key Saudi celebrations in the country’s eastern province, where US oil giant Saudi Aramco has wielded Americanizing influence, and in the city of the sea. Red from Jeddah, which has always stood out for its slightly more permissive atmosphere.

And despite the best efforts of religious authorities, the spirit of Christmas tended to seep into Saudi homes through Hollywood and social media.

Revan Moha, 19, never left Saudi Arabia, but was still desperate to find a Christmas tree in Riyadh in December.

“Oh,” she said recently, “I wish it would snow! “

She was thrilled to hear that trees were readily available at party stores and Instagram sellers – artificial, of course.

The secret Christmas request was apparently such that in 2018 Saudi customs officials were forced to warn on Twitter that Christmas trees were banned from entering the kingdom. Ridicule ensued.

In October 2020, a party supply store in Riyadh, the Good Ship Lollipop, dared to display four Christmas trees, including one in the window. Chris Congco, an employee, said he sold 30 fake trees that year. But then, on a nudge from the authorities, a Grinchy directive came in from the owner: take down the display case.

“I can’t question it,” said Mr. Congco, 42, a Filipino from Manila who has celebrated Christmas privately every year during his decade working in Saudi Arabia recently. “In just 15 to 30 minutes, I collapsed the tree and put it in the back.”

This year, they decided to exhibit the trees again, as well as the aisles filled with leprechaun hats, reindeer antlers, faux holly, snowmen, pine cones, glitter ornaments, junkyard -nuts and Santa hats. The only reason they haven’t sold as many trees as they did last year, Congco said, is because other stores in Riyadh have joined the market, increasing competition.

Yet Christmas items made up around 70% of its sales last month, bought by a few Saudis as well as expats.

If authorities complain about the tree in the window this year, Mr Congco has a plan: he will tell them it’s “just a pine tree with snow”. He strategically placed another plant next to it, in order to pass it off as a “forest” display if necessary. “And it’s cold now,” he explained, “so we can say it’s winter”.

But he doubted it would come to this.

“It might not be officially licensed,” he said, “but it’s okay, yes I think and I feel.”

For countless Saudis, this is still not good.

As the holiday season loomed last year, Assim Alhakeem, a Jeddah-based sheikh who answers religious questions online, posted a YouTube video banning saying “Merry Christmas” even to politely greet Christian friends. .

“People say Christmas is no longer a religious holiday, the New Year is okay to celebrate and congratulate. This is totally wrong, “he said.” It is a major sin to imitate, to praise, to participate. You have your own religion, and I have my own religion.

On the other hand, the Saudi authorities seem to have evolved: the anti-tree tweet of the customs authorities was, at one point, discreetly deleted.

Iman al-Dabbagh contributed reporting.

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