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RIYAD: With the growing number of foreign tourists and expats arriving in Saudi Arabia, a trend towards greater openness and tolerance for the holiday season has become a critical part of the Kingdom’s reform agenda.
Sydney Turnbull, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Saudi Arabia for seven years, told Arab News that when she first arrived, Christmas was a holiday that was strictly celebrated behind closed doors.
âYou’ve heard stories of people smuggling Christmas trees and celebrating in private, but you’ve never seen colorful festive decorations or lights outside like you’ve seen back home in the States. -United, âshe said.
However, that has all changed in recent years, with holiday displays popping up in store windows and gift products lining the shelves.
âThis year, in particular, is perhaps the most public Christmas event,â said Turnbull. âTo see cafes and restaurants turned into winter wonderland, jeweled snowmen, decorations and ornaments for sale, and Starbucks offering holiday drinks in their holiday-themed mugs, which is the same that my friends and family have at home.
âMy jaw dropped when I saw that Bateel (a local coffee shop) now had an Advent calendar. Yesterday I received an email from a great restaurant here in Riyadh offering a New Years celebration. This would have been unheard of just a few years ago. ”
Enrico Catania, a 35-year-old Italian resident of Jeddah, told Arab News this year’s celebrations will be slightly different due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting travel restrictions. He will spend it with friends as usual, but will not see his family.
Still, the growing openness to Christmas celebrations in Saudi Arabia means he will feel more at home.
âWe have always enjoyed it with our loved ones, but there has been a noticeable relaxation since 2015 in the celebration of a culture that was almost forbidden in the periods leading up to 2015,â Catania said.
“I would say, however, that in general, and in recent times, awareness and acceptance of these cultural customs is increasing despite cultural differences,” he added.
Turnbull also noticed that many other expats were openly celebrating the holidays in Saudi Arabia this time around.
“My Saudi colleagues even gave me Christmas presents, an incredibly kind and thoughtful gesture, and just another example of how warm and welcoming people are here.”
She’s even going to sit down for a traditional Christmas lunch with Saudi friends and expats whom she considers like a second family.
“After that, I’ll probably spend the night watching some classic Christmas movies with a mug of hot chocolate and family and friends FaceTiming to wish them a Merry Christmas.”
Meanwhile, Ashwag Bamhafooz, a Saudi housewife from Jeddah, said she has been invited to spend Christmas with her husband’s Filipino friends.
âMy mother’s family, even though they are Sunni Lebanese, celebrate Christmas and give each other gifts,â Bamahfooz said.
âI think it’s good to celebrate Christmas and New Years as we celebrate the Hijri year,â she said, adding that she was excited about the Kingdom’s evolution towards greater tolerance and acceptance. others.
Indeed, the Kingdom is keen to foster a culture of tolerance for different ideas and ways of doing things, not only to create a welcoming atmosphere, but to celebrate the value of difference and diversity.
Muneerah Al-Nujaiman, professor of English at Princess Nourah University, told Arab News that many Saudis seem to have misunderstood the idea of ââtolerance.
âI firmly believe in cultural tolerance, which means allowing Christians to celebrate their own religious beliefs in Saudi Arabia. However, I don’t celebrate them myself because they don’t reflect my religious or cultural identity, âAl-Nujaiman said.
“Acceptance of religions means that we do not fight them or prevent them from celebrating their holidays, because when I was in their country they gave us the freedom to pray and pray, but acceptance does not mean the celebration.
âUnfortunately now those who don’t celebrate Halloween and Christmas are not accepted, and this concept is wrong. Westerners have not accepted or included our festivals in their culture, and they see freedom as a strong symbol. It is good for someone to separate their cultural identity and religion from the rest of the people, as it reflects the strength of a particular society, âAl-Nujaiman added.
The religious police being out of the question, the Kingdom has endeavored to encourage the coexistence, acceptance and assimilation of foreign cultures in society, so that visitors and expatriates are not excluded or forced to adopt customs that are not theirs.
Saudi dentist Mawia Al-Hazim used to study in New York and says she has missed the Christmas atmosphere since returning to the Kingdom.
âI don’t celebrate it religiously because I’m a Muslim, but being part of the happiness and joy of others is always a good thing. I have been invited here to many Christmas events.
Al-Hazim says she is tempted to organize a holiday event on her own and even put up a Christmas tree, but has struggled to find decorations in local stores.
Turnbull had to go online to find his decorations. âThanks to online retailers, it’s incredibly easy to find decorations here in Saudi Arabia,â she said. âThe once-rare Christmas tree, ornaments, lights and stockings are just a click away. I think I bought just about every holiday candle I could find. My apartment currently smells like a farmhouse of freshly cut balsam fir Christmas trees.
Rodolfo Negro, 26, an Italian resident of Jeddah, said he was planning a small family reunion this year.
âThe Christmas celebrations haven’t changed as we celebrate it at home as we always do,â Negro said.
âHowever, I have to say that there are a lot more Christmas decorations in the city and they are selling the decorations more openly than before. Unfortunately, the stock has run out, which means that many people have bought the decorations So I believe more non-Christians started celebrating.
Seeing transformation in the Kingdom encouraged Turnbull to invite his parents to visit him for the first time.
âNow is the perfect time to show them the country I have called home for so long and all the treasures it has to offer,â said Turnbull.
âMy dad can’t wait to play golf at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, and my mom can’t wait to explore the souks.â