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Travel Notes: Christmas Greetings: Christmas Contest: Saudi Arabia -- Travel Writers

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Christmas in Saudi Arabia -- by Dave Bunyard

In December 1996, I spent my first Christmas in Saudi Arabia as a civilian.

I wasn't with a group of soldiers or corporate executives to share the experience. I came alone.

Being stationed in Al Khobar on the Eastern Province, I had made a few good friends. However, I had been recently moved to Jeddah on the Red Sea side where I didn't know anyone.

Saudi Arabia, as you know, is a Muslim country. Christmas is not a Muslim holiday. Therefore, the Saudis do not celebrate Christmas. In fact, it is forbidden to celebrate it. So I didn't think there would be much excitement at Christmas time.

Purchasing a Christmas tree would be illegal. As there are few trees, cutting down a thorn bush in the desert would have proved to be too painful. Finding trimmings for the tree and a wreath in the local stores would be near impossible. And putting lights outside my villa might create complications with the local police.

The temperature remained high in the 80s and 90s in the desert climate. Why bother, it would be too warm anyway. No tree, no stockings, no fancy lights, no Christmas pudding, No glazed ham with family and friends. I didn't think Christmas would come at all.

But then late one evening, I got a knock on my door. Three British teenagers were standing at my door wearing t-shirts, shorts and roller blades.

I opened the door and they starting singing Christmas carols to me. After a bit of shock, I sat there and listened to them for a few songs, gave them some money and bade them farewell. That event made my Christmas. It wasn't much, but it meant a great deal.

Over the next year, I made friends with many Western expatriates.

My 1997 Christmas in Saudi Arabia had more spirit than any other time I've ever had. I found the expatriate underground who found lots of ways to celebrate the holiday.

There were numerous parties at friends' houses with loads of food and handmade decorations. We attended a Christmas Concert with 40 people in a Choir who sang their hearts out. There was even a play for the kids that touched on Christmas.

There was also a Christmas party out in the desert. And what a party it was.

Over 200 expatriates from around the world came together out into the desert away from the city, the Saudis and the local police.

The party came complete with mould wine, mince pies, hot cinnamon apple cider, a roaring fire, and even Santa Clause.

During the Christmas caroling, 'Silent Night' was sung in five different languages. We sang and laughed and celebrated for hours on into the night.

We brought our tents to camp out, ate and drank to our fill and enjoyed each others company. We celebrated Christmas in a place that considered it to be taboo. It was truly wonderful.

Some say that the true meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some say it is to celebrate the fact that we have survived the shortest day of the year. Some say it is for the merchants so that you can buy presents.

Those reasons may be true, but I say it is more than that.

It is also a reminder that you belong to a community. You are part of a common thread that binds us all together.

Christmas allows us to get close to and give to people we don't know. To be kind and giving to each other, to get close to our loved ones and share a good time together. To celebrate life. Isn't that what birthdays are about?

Even when you find yourself among a culture whose beliefs do not match your own, there is plenty of warmth to be found. The local police and the Bedouins out in the desert knew we were there. But they ignored us and let us enjoy our fellowship.

They understand their own brotherhood and their own time of giving, and so they chose to accept ours. Some day, we may all celebrate this oneness together.

Don't be alone this holiday season.

Dave Bunyard

Submitted as part of the Christmas Travel Writing Contest

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