Have Yourself a Merry Saudi Christmas

Secret Celebrations: To preserve the Islam religion in Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are forbidden from practicing their faith in public. Philippine singer Ogie Alcasid (center) joins the celebration at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah.
(Photo courtesy of Noel L. Senisante)

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA—“They’re throwing stones in Bethlehem…” so goes the opening line of the song “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” slightly revised to reflect the mood of the times in the Middle East. Filipino workers of the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco) here sing this unintentional tribute to the Palestinian Intifada to celebrate Christmas in the comfort of their living quarters.

Benjie Jalayahay, 35, an Aramco engineer, says that he and his Filipino officemates hold private Christmas parties every year. “This way we don’t feel left out of the celebrations in other parts of the world,” he says.

The only Catholic country in Southeast Asia, the Philippines celebrates Christmas from October to January.

“But here we can only stretch the festivities for a week or two. We visit friends, have fun. We hop around from friend to friend just like you do during fiestas back home. You have to humor everybody or they might feel offended,” Jalayahay adds.

In a small room inside an old residential building just across the street from where Aramco stands, Ricardo de Guzman is eating bread and instant noodles. “Christmas? I don’t celebrate Christmas. Well, maybe yes, but I celebrate in silence,” he says between mouthfuls of the hot noodles.

De Guzman, 25, works as a security guard in a nearby supermarket. He says that his work schedule doesn’t give him time to “horse around.” “Jingle lang ang pahinga, ika nga (Taking a leak is all I get for rest). So Christmas just passes by like an ordinary day. You can’t celebrate in public anyway. It’s not that I’m not religious. I pray every day—but that’s nothing to Muslims who pray five times a day,” he says. “Maybe we should try it and be closer to God.”

Yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but their most striking difference is the interpretation of the role of Jesus. “Muslims revere Jesus Christ not as God, but as a prophet just like Mohammad,” the founder of Islam, says Francisco Abenina, a member of an underground Catholic religious group, explaining why Christmas celebration is banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Christmas, after all, is Jesus Christ’s birthday; and Muslims don’t even celebrate Mohammad’s birthday. “Christians like us, however, believe in the Holy Trinity—the oneness of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Abenina adds.

Why Celebrate In Secret

The Kingdom, host to more than a million Filipinos, is the center of Islam. It is where the two cities sacred to the religion, Makkah (Mecca) and Madina (Medina), are found. To keep these sacred sites free of outside influences, the government doesn’t allow non-Muslims inside the two cities. Non-Muslims can stay in other parts of the Kingdom, but they are forbidden from practicing their faith in public for fear of offending the Islamic sensibilities of the population. 

Saudi Arabia, however, is the only country in the Arabian Gulf that prohibits public display of non-Muslim faiths. One can even find Catholic churches in the United Arab Emirates. But then again, a Saudi will argue, these countries are not the guardians of the Two Holy Mosques. Thus, Simbang Gabi—the nine evening masses before Christmas—is out of the question for Christians who are the majority of Filipino expatriates in Saudi Arabia. 

“But we do have Simbang Gabi here,” protests Arnel Alcatraz, 35, a cashier in a department store in Jeddah. “Well, okay, I admit that is only because underground masses are held during the night when the working day is over. But they’re still Simbang Gabi, technically speaking, and we have it every week the whole year round,” he chuckles.

Kantahan: Filipinos in Saudi sing their homesickness away during an indoor Christmas party. (Photo courtesy of Noel L. Senisante)

Alcatraz is a member of a Born Again Christian group that holds a weekly Friday mass. Masses by various Christian groups—Jesus Is Lord, Lord Reign International, Word for Word, charismatics and even the Iglesia ni Cristo—have to be held Fridays instead of Sundays because work schedules follow the Muslim calendar, which regards Friday as a holiday.

Alcatraz says that they convert residential apartments into underground 

churches, and masses are officiated by lay ministers called “pastors.” Some of these churches have real priests who have day jobs. They wouldn’t be allowed entry into the Kingdom if the authorities knew that they were priests.

Religious Police

The Saudi government is not really on the hunt for underground churches, being aware that expatriates do need to practice their religion; so long as the worship remains private it is tolerated. 

The real cause for concern, however, are the muttawas or religious police, who are always on the lookout for evangelists who don’t just pray in private, but also preach and try to convert people to their belief. The muttawas are feared not only by expatriates, but also by Saudi citizens. They roam malls and public squares at prayer times and lash at people they find loitering instead of praying. 

People scamper away when they see the muttawas coming, the sea of humanity parting like the Red Sea as the muttawas walk by.

“The muttawas are most active in Riyadh, that’s why our members there are extra careful,” says Alcatraz. “They use codes in communicating. Instead of the word ‘pastor,’ for instance, they use ‘boss’ or something like that. Just recently five pastors were arrested, imprisoned for two months and sent home after receiving several lashes.” 

The muttawas could really make life very difficult for anybody. So to avoid problems, Filipino women stick to the rules and wear the traditional black garment called abaya and cover up from head to toe. In places where the muttawas are less active, like Dammam and Jeddah, women are still required to wear the abayas, but they can go around without the headgear.

Christmas Treats

Despite the restrictions on non-Muslim religious activities, Christmas celebrations are held in ingenious ways.

George Bernardino, a bakeshop helper who has been living in Riyadh for seven years, says that a Christmas treat for him is having nighttime barbecue and beer (non-alcoholic, of course) with friends and co-workers on the rooftop of their “villa” (apartment or living quarters provided by the company). From there they have a fantastic view of the city with lampposts scattered all around like Christmas lights.

Some members of the staff of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, also in Riyadh, hold “New Year’s Day” parties. “Of course, kasama na ang Pasko ‘dun (It’s also a Christmas celebration). You just don’t spell it out but everybody knows,” says Adora Rojas, an administrative officer. “Even the Muslim staff and our Saudi friends greet us ‘Happy Christmas’ and we answer back: ‘Merry New Year.’”

“We celebrate, but we tell them that it’s a family day, a year-end party or whatever,” says Lydia Quitco, a schoolteacher. “You only mention Christmas to fellow Christians or to non-Christians who greet you.”

Even the Consulate General in Jeddah, for a time, sponsored “year-end” activities organized by the Filipino community. However, this stopped when a new consul general who is a stickler for the rules was appointed.

Expatriate professional deep-sea divers have a unique way of celebrating. They set up camp in the middle of the Red Sea, play loud music and party all night long. Usually they are a mixed group of Christian Filipinos, British and other nationalities.

Religious organizations have the best Christmas activities, says Antonio Tenerife, 51, an artist/designer for a book publishing firm. He has been living in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. 

You wouldn’t want to be in jail here. This isn’t the Philippines.

“Parties are usually held indoors, but when we decide to go out bongga talaga (full blast), says Tenerife. “In the past, we used the function hall of a hotel in Taif (Saudi Arabia’s summer capital) and we had a live band singing Christmas songs. We also exchanged gifts, had games and entertainment. Last year we went to the beach in Obhur. We had visitors from Industrial (a district in Jeddah) and there were about 800 of us from different Christian organizations.”

He adds: “Our visitors were saying, ‘this IS Christmas.’ They were just glad that they didn’t stay home alone and cry. If you’re not a member of an organization, you won’t feel the meaning of Christmas.”

And what can the unorganized kababayan say about this? “Our style is simple: We just buy sambosa (bread with vegetables), chicken and soft drinks and eat in a corner of the office with our Arab friends,” says Arturo Cartel, 46, maintenance engineer for Okaz printing press. 

Like Tenerife, Cartel has been in the Kingdom for 16 years. “You see, Christmas is just an ordinary working day here. But we never let it pass without some sort of a happening. Sometimes when I’m home, I invite some friends for pansit (noodles), soup or barbecue.”

Cartel used to attend indoor Christmas masses but stopped because he couldn’t control his laughter seeing a co-worker, a joker in the office, administering the mass. “I didn’t know he was a pastor. He invited me to a Christmas dinner and I obliged. Kainan ‘yan syempre mahirap tanggihan (It’s hard to say no to food). When he stood in the middle of the room and began administering the mass, I thought he was joking and I laughed so hard my jaws ached. But I stopped immediately when I noticed that everyone was serious. I had a very hard time controlling myself.”

Children of expatriates, who grew up here, are not clueless about Christmas, although they miss the public festivities back in the Philippines. They also go to their ninongs and ninangs (godparents) for private gatherings. 

“We only spend Christmas at home because they say it’s not allowed in school. We just hang around with some classmates and their parents,” says Arlyn Damiles, 12. 

Six-year-old Ina Madrid knows Christmas is coming when her parents start taking out the Christmas tree for dusting and she hears carols from their CD player. “We eat lumpia (egg rolls), rice, meat, cake, and there are presents,” she says. “We also go to my classmates’ house and have parties.”

For some grownups, however, the “trip” is bootleg wine called sadiki. The police are always on alert on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they know the Filipinos are “up to their old tricks again.” 

Liquor is banned, but the ingredients for making it are freely available. A 1.5-liter bottle of sadiki costs 50 riyals ($13). For people who have money to burn, smuggled Johnny Walkers is the spirit of choice, costing about 500-800 riyals ($133-$213) a bottle. “Sadiki is dangerous,” Cartel says, “but if you insist on drinking it, at least stay indoor until you’re safe and sober. You don’t know what could happen when you go out into the street drunk. You could land in jail. You wouldn’t want to be in jail here. This isn’t the Philippines.”

Tug-of-War: With the restrictions on observing Christmas, Filipinos find creative ways to celebrate, like having a New Year or Year-end party. They engage in games at the Obhur beach along the Red Sea in Jeddah. (Photo courtesy of Noel L. Senisante)

Christmas Every Day

Don’t look now, but Christmas is everywhere here in the Kingdom, the ordinary Saudis just don’t know it. Walk into toy stores any time of the year and you will hear familiar Christmas tunes coming from musical toys, “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” being the most common. 

Stationery stalls along the sidewalks in Jeddah’s Balad district sell greetings cards with pictures of a Christmas tree or desert scenes with the words “Season’s Greetings.” Enter an ashra-ashra (penny-and-dime) store and you’ll find items like Christmas lights and decorations.

Call the office of a newspaper notorious for anti-Christian policies and pray that they put you on hold. And guess what—you’ll hear the tune “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” again and again until some real person answers and you hang up.

Sit inside a mall and every few minutes you’ll hear Christmas tones ringing from the cell phones of Saudis passing by.

An Indian school where most students are Muslim presented a play entitled “Scrooge,” which was adapted from the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. They made some changes in the play—they added the character Santa Claus played by a female student in red suit and white beard. 

Fantastic, a homesick Filipino would say, it’s like you’re in Manila and it’s Christmas every day.  

Editor’s Note: Except for Arturo Cartel and Antonio Tenerife, all the names mentioned here were changed to avoid jeopardizing people’s stay in Saudi Arabia. “And for obvious reason I, too, am using a pseudonym” writes the author. “Call me scaredy-cat, but I want to go home with my head attached to my body.” Originally published in Filipinas as “Preemptive Festivities” on December 2002.