Christmas In Saudi Arabia, Again, And Missing the New Year

Christmas Tree In Ritz Carlton Club, Dubai

Christmas Tree in Ritz Carlton Club 2017

A very belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year all.  I actually started writing this mid-Jan.  Now it’s nearly Feb.  The year is flying already!  Anyway, I hope the holiday season was jolly and stress free where ever in the world you were.  We celebrated Christmas in Saudi Arabia this year and New Years too.   Something to do with choosing to go home now or go later.  Later is heaps cheaper in terms of flights back to NZ.  And that way the grandkids get a double Christmas – almost a mid-winter affair the way things are looking at the moment.

This is not the first time we have spent this particular holiday season in Saudi (and you can read more about my previous expat Christmas experiences on this link Christmas Archives.)   What was Christmas in Saudi like.  Much the same as every other Saudi based festive holiday….Quiet.  Everywhere. Yes, that aptly describes it I think.  Looking around this country you wouldn’t know it was Christmas at all.  No decked out trees with lights, no Christmas jingles in shops, no well-fed santa with his red had.  Nothing at all to make Christians think this was their time of year.  Totally different to Saudi’s Arab neighbours, especially Dubai, where there are huge and impressive Christmas trees in almost every mall and hotel – well, all the ones I went into the week before Christmas anyway.

Christmas – A Practice In Subtlety

Apparently some time ago – I’m guessing around the date of the takeover of the holy mosque in the late 70’s/ early 80’s because that is when a lot of things began to change, but don’t quote me – the Royal Family decreed there would be no Christmas celebrations in Saudi.

I get that.  I do.  After all, this is a country of Islam.  Here reside the guardians of the Islamic holy sites.  But I think they are being a bit extreme.

In recognition of this decree, even though there are actually a million or so non-Muslim expats living, working and building this country – mostly Christian and Catholic – they are not permitted a place of worship. Ever.  So, there are no public churches. There are no publicly announced or advertised services. Not even on small western residential compound bulletin boards are such notices to be shown, in case a muslim hears about it and gets offended.  Church services often take place in private homes or diplomatic residences.  Information about said service is passed via word of mouth.  They are low key, almost secret affairs.  Unless you live in a totally western compound with zero muslims in your midst, religiously perceived decorations hanging on your door or displaying through your window are not permitted either.  Even jewellery that can be deemed a religious sign, if seen on display, will land you in hot water. That is the official stance.

Christians are however allowed one, small personal bible each.  Anything too big would be considered preachy.

Zero Saudi’s will publicly acknowledge they feel just a little bit bad about this decree.  A few will privately wish Christians a happy Christmas.  Loads of Saudi’s, however, will go overseas to enjoy the festivities put on in Christian countries over the Christmas season.  Go figure.

Hubster went to work on Christmas Day in Saudi.

He was actually going to stay there all day but in the lead up to the festive day I had a mini-spak, or two, that had words like #WTF spewing forth – in full, not abbreviated.

You see the husband had decided that, as we weren’t going home for Christmas, we weren’t going to have Christmas type activities of any description.   Naturally, he had not communicated such to me else we would have been very clear, very early on, that such thinking was total nonsense.   I actually wonder what made him think we weren’t having a Christmas of our own when a lovely expat couple on our compound had suggested, a week or so prior, that we join their group of families for Christmas, as they were staying in town too.  It was a lovely suggestion and we both said Yes,
Thank You,
That would be lovely.

On top of that a bit of time had been taken by yours truly to deck our front door with Christmas lights, a Christmas wreath and lovely Christmassy looking plants.  (Poinsiettas in fact).   I had even managed to get my hands on a real fake Christmas tree.  He even  commented on how good all the decorations looked.   And then he thinks he’s spending all day at work.  Pu-l-leease!

His over-committment to the job is especially annoying at this time of year when members of his Muslim loaded office go on flaming holiday to places like London so they can enjoy the Christmas lights and happiness.  Seriously.  I reckon Saudi’s would make good Ngapuhi maori’s – they are ‘opportunists’.  They’re In Like Flynn.  Especially the blokes.  And doubly especially when potential time off or a few drinks are on the cards.  (Trust me, I know a few Ngapuhi Maori – they are called ‘family’!)

A Fellow Kiwi and I Organised Christmas Carols on the Compound.

There were a number of other Saudi expats on our compound who hadn’t yet made it out of town either.  We thought they would enjoy some carol singing.  We also didn’t mind if they invited any ‘in Saudi for Christmas’ friends. There were quite a few of us.  I thought Hubster might click how off key he was with his Non-Christmas in Saudi thinking when informed of the arrangements.  After being advised his presence would be expected on this day at a certain time, he was overheard making arrangements to meet a Saudi mate out for coffee.  Spak number one ensued.  Coffee arrangements were changed.

He had to admit the Carols was a good evening.  I even heard him singing a few bars.   Fellow Kiwi and other attendees had baked numerous yummy things to share.  We had a pianist, words on a large screen, Arabic carpets and warm cardies, a little Christmas tree with lights.  And we had You Tube teed up in case singing voices were shy.  They weren’t.

Christmas Day for us actually started on our Christmas Eve.

That’s because of the time difference.  Our Christmas actually lasted for a number of hours as our kids live in two different time zones.  We were sent videos of the grandchildren opening their gifts that we had sent.   Well…that we had sent someone out to buy for them because posting large parcels is a bit ekky from Saudi to anywhere really.  Especially at Christmas time. The extended whanau put up photos and comments on our family Messenger so we were all involved from all corners.  It was nice and, as I have said before, technology can be a fabulous thing at times like this.

Some of my family

Some of the Fam Bam

Our Saudi based Christmas Day started with ‘The One Who Thought He Was Working All Christmas’ being given very strict instructions on his timetable for the day.    He was to finish early and then we were being picked up to head out to the desert for a gathering around the fire with some fellow Kiwi’s.   He gave me this confused look while receiving this information because the penny was having a bit of trouble working its way through his grey matter that this was Christmas Day and Wifey planned on us both celebrating it.
When the penny did drop it was with a kind of Thwop.   Like the coin had been shit out from unused brain cells covered in goo.
Goo Coin’s arrival forced out a sigh.
A shake of the head.
A look that said ‘you don’t understand how stressful my job is.’

All of his nonsense was met with a set jaw and a steely look that knew, without doubt, that my plan for the day was better than his.
(He did admit, later in the evening, that I was right to have insisted on this).

So it was that later that afternoon we loaded firewood into Big E’s big truck, threw in some desert carpets and a Chilly Bin full of food and set off into the dunes.

Christmas In Saudi Shared With Friends In The Desert.

Being a Monday there were very few people out in the dunes until much later that evening which suited us just fine.  Once the troupe leaders had selected our spot, which was largely based on how far the heaviest vehicle could make it through the sand, we set up camp.  That involved doing a bit of rubbish clean up as per Two Bags – The Rubbish Revolution. that seems to be spreading.  Woohoo.  The blokes got quite involved this day even hooking up the vehicle to some buried barbed wire fencing and dragging it out from its existing location close to our campsite away from young children who could potentially run around and get caught up in it.

Lots of food had been bought to be shared.  Sooo much food.  The Christmas Cake was a real Kiwiana treat baked and decorated by one more organized (she had thought well ahead to bring a few of these chocolate goodies back from the home country) and creative than I (with help from her kids I believe) and we all had a piece of that!  Once the appetite had been sated we built up the campfire and sat around to sing, chat, chillax’ and, for the younger members, have a bit of a nap.  It was a lovely evening with lovely families and a great way to enjoy our Christmas in Saudi Arabia

Our New Year Eve

We spent New Years with a different crew in the home of another fellow Kiwi for a dinner date.  She had recently returned from a trip to NZ and had bought back some treats that we often pick up in Pokeno.  So thoughtful of her.  Once again there was loads of food on offer, though I didn’t get to try any of it till after the midnight hour rang in the New Year because I went for a pre-new year nap!  Seriously!

Earlier in the day I had begun to feel a bit unwell so, presuming I was just a little tired, took myself off for a sleep to re-charge before we had to head out for the evening. Turns out my ‘off’ feeling followed me and soon after arriving for our New Year dinner my body started on a downhill slide.  So I excused myself and went for a lie down on our hostess’s bed.  A few hours later my husband’s gentle nudging woke me to say the New Year had begun, did I want to come and welcome it in with a coffee and food.  The lie down had down its job and, after waking myself up properly, I realised I was quite hungry so went to wish everyone a Happy 2018 and tucked in to the left over dinner treats. Soon after that we headed home.  Yep, that was my party animal New Year in Saudi.

Mind you, Saudi itself wasn’t ringing in the New Year. They celebrate the Islamic New Year which was back in September 2017.  Their celebration is based on the first migration of Prophet Mohammad and a few of his peeps from Makkah to Madinah. They are currently up to year 1439 from this historic event. You can read more about the Islamic New Year in this Gulf News Society article What is Hijiri New Year.

Being away from family at these traditionally family bonding times of year can be a bit difficult.  It is even more so in a place that doesn’t even recognise you may be having a lonely time missing all the family togetherness going on back home. The Hubster and I are fortunate that we have been here long enough to be part of a community that is quite often in the same boat at the same time of year so we can get ourselves together for our own form of celebrations.  New arrivals however, can feel really out of water in this unfamiliar place over Christmas and New Year, much as Saudi’s away from home must feel when out of the country over Ramadan.  The difference for the displace feeling Saudi however, is that the west will largely accept that they have different beliefs and, generally speaking, won’t hold that against them.  Saudi Arabia is not there yet.



Ka Kite,

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