Christmas in the Middle East: diversity and tolerance

mosque christmas tree

Beirut, Libanon

The countries surrounding the Arabian Gulf recently started their Christmas preparations. Not only the countries with large groups of Christian believers, such as Jordan, Libanon and Syria, but most Gulf countries which have Islam as their state religion as well. Within Islam, Jesus, or Isa bin Maryam (son of Maria) or Yasu’ al-Masih (Jesus the anointed), is seen as an important prophet. Officially Muslims do not celebrate his birth, but they give expats the opportunity to do so. And in what way!

Christmas tree

Several cities, huge malls and hotels compete annually for the best, biggest or most expensive tree. The largest Christmas tree in the Middle East of last year was put together in the centre of Baghdad in Iraq. The United Arab Emirates made headlines with their jewellery tree at the Emirates Palace in 2010. 31 Ornaments of gold, diamonds and sapphires with a total value of $ 11 million were glistening on the tree’s branches. And Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, turned into a giant Christmas tree when fireworks were shot from all floors into the dark night.

Christmas decorations

christmas supermarkt middle east

Christmas decorations in the supermarket (by Me over ME)

Supermarkets are full of chocolate Santa Clauses and Weihnachtstollen (German Christmas loaf). Even the English Christmas pudding is not lacking. There are Christmas garlands and shiny decoration balls offered in all shapes and colours. Large illuminated Santas welcome you at the entrance to the Christmas market. Everything you think of is available.
In addition to a wide range of plastic trees Christmas lovers can also order real pine trees. They are imported into the desert from Canada in refrigerated containers. Regular spruce, blue spruce, with and without a ball of earth. Although pine trees can’t survive in this harsh environment, there are always people that want to give it a chance. After Christmas they put the tree in the arid ground. But it doesn’t take long before it turns into a poor humped old man, as colourless as the soil in which it is planted.

Mix of cultures


Christmas carols in front of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (right) (by Me over ME)

I love the mix of cultures and traditions that merge during Christmas under the always shining sun. The Indian Santa Claus on a camel while his reindeer passes by in a kayak, chased by a colourful rainbow of children. A Filipino choir singing carols on the bay with the beautiful white Grand Mosque in the background. The multicultural crowd loudly chanting “Christmas night” over the desert dunes under the starry sky.

Saudi Arabia

But most enjoyable to me are the Christmas celebrations in Saudi Arabia, one of the seven countries in the world where it is not allowed to celebrate Christmas in public. Only Christians from abroad may celebrate the festival in a small circle and inside the walls of their home. There are no Christmas decorations available in the shops and souqs (Arab market) and the import of Christmas items is not permitted. Therefore, expatriates organise craft afternoons. We make trees of green plastic bottles, dry branches, and even sticky notes. We stick ping-pong balls full with glitter or mirror pieces, make reindeer from puzzle pieces and glue pasta shapes together into a star. Then, on Christmas Eve itself we sing all together very softly with the feeling of a mischievous adolescent: “Oh Christmas tree, when will you come to meet me!”