Christmas decorations such as trees, ornaments and other holiday season decorations are pretty much non-existent in public during the holiday season in Saudi Arabia. Christmas is viewed as strictly a Christian religious holiday and all items that celebrate it are supposed to be forbidden here. Christmas trees are viewed as religious or pagan symbols by many people around this neck of the woods and would most certainly be confiscated by the notorious Saudi religious cops were they to come across any. Despite the lack of holiday spirit in the public sphere, many expats and even locals celebrate the holidays in the privacy of their homes. Compounds will have Christmas bazaars going on starting from November where all the decorations can be found and bought. Scroll down to read where you can get christmas trees in Riyadh and how I found mine from the Black Market half-accidentally.
Oh Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!
Thou tree most fair and lovely!
The sight of thee at Christmastide
Spreads hope and gladness far and wide
Oh Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
Thou tree most fair and lovely!
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!
thou tree most scarce and forbidden
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!
where are thy branches hidden?
The sight of thee in Saudi-land
Spreads fear and loathing in the sand.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree!
Thou tree most scarce and forbidden.
The only Christmas tree that I know of on public display in Riyadh was in Hayat mall and it was not even decorated. It’s pretty amazing how they pulled that one off without the Hai’a (Saudi religious police) having a say. Maybe there were too many women with nail polish around on that day for the religious police to notice anything else. My friend sent me this pic:
I chuckled. How could the muttawa possibly miss this?
The only way I knew people got Christmas trees in Saudi was if they had shipped theirs in. Like my friend Nicole, also married to a Saudi, who managed to ship in a pretty large fake tree among her stuff from the States not so long ago. That’s why I had given up on the idea of ever having a tree here. But I knew I wanted one and especially because I want to share this childhood memory and Finnish holiday traditions with my children.
So here’s the story of how I found a “Black Market” christmas tree in Saudi Arabia.
How I found my own fake tree was by pure accident. I was in an area in Riyadh which could be called a ghetto, looking around for some decorations. We went there knowing they sell Christmas-sy decorations such as lights and those colorful frills people here use on Eid. I love having those beautiful lights in the house during the darker winter months.
I entered one of the shops that sells all sorts of tawdry stuff and plastic crap. In Finnish I would call it a rihkama store. The place was packed with people and I saw an entire shelf full of what could not be mistaken for anything else than Christmas ornaments. I was shocked a little but happy to have found them. Out of the blue I asked the salesman if they happened to have Christmas trees for sale.
The look on his face was as if I had just asked him for drugs.
The salesman turned red and whispered back to me, yes we do have as if he was letting me in on a state secret. I remained calm but inside I was now very excited. I had not expected this at all! Christmas trees for sale in Saudi-Arabia? No way!
I excitedly asked what sizes they had since I didn’t want to leave the store dragging a huge log behind me. He tried to show me the sizes with his hands while constantly eyeing the nearby Saudi customers with suspicion. He pretended to arrange some boxes around while doing it. I asked if the trees were decorated and did they have a stand. His nervous replies started to make me nervous too.
I told him I needed to see it before I could buy anything. The salesman hesitated but then motioned me to follow him. My heart was now beating faster as I realized my dream of having a cute little tree might come true after-all but at the same time I was nervous because the salesman was acting like we were about to commit a horrid crime.
It felt like he was a drug dealer about to show me his stash of cocaine.
The man walked to an aisle in the middle of the store fearfully glancing around, now visibly anxious and fidgety. He said “if any man with beard come, problem”.
I nodded and said mafi mushkila. He kneeled down and removed the screws that had been loosely placed on the bottom of the corridor shelves. The front came off and revealed the long cardboard boxes hidden inside.
Now two Saudi women walked by. The salesman scrambled quickly closing the door and stood up while I pretended to browse through the cheap alarm clocks on top of the shelf. I wondered what my husband would say about the tree.
The women finally left and the salesman opened the door again. I could see three different sizes of boxes. He asked me which one I wanted. I told him I would have to see the actual tree before purchasing, but I wanted the smallest one. He opened one of the boxes and showed me the top of the tree which in all honesty looked really darn crappy, but beggars are not choosers.
“Will you take it ma’m?” I told him yes, I will take “it”!
The man pulled the box out of its hiding place. Suddenly the box fell apart and a portion of the tree was now showing.
My heart almost stopped.
The salesman panicked and started shouting in Hindi to his co-worker while trying to hide the branches with his arms. The co-worker flew to rescue with two large white plastic bags.
With trembling hands they shoved the tree box in the plastic bag and placed another one on top covering all the green parts.
He told me he would take this “ahem” to the cashier to wait for me. Luckily it seemed as if the Saudi customers around the store were oblivious to our sneaky Christmas tree business and no bearded men were in sight.
With my heart still racing from the adrenaline rush this piece of green plastic had triggered, I tried to pick up some decorations for the tree. Strangely they were all out on display. I found colored pine cones, ball ornaments, frills and stars. One salesman even brought a big box of stars to me.
I wondered why it was acceptable to sell these ornaments but the actual tree was treated like the anti-christ.
When I was done I apprehensively approached the cashier. I tried to wait for a moment when there was no queue but that was not going to happen on a busy evening like this. When my turn came I quickly handed him the basket full of tree decorations. He glanced around from the corner of his eyes and took the things directly into a plastic bag.
Next I wondered how I was supposed to tell him about “it”. I said there was ‘ahem ahem’ something for me here. I tried to look for the white plastic bag and noticed it stashed behind his chair. The cashier did not understand my code language for hidden christmas tree so I had to point to the bag and say I think that was mine. “Oh OK ma’m”. He did not even touch the bag.
At this point my husband suddenly rushed into the store. My first thought was my husband came to warn me about approaching muttawa but he wanted me to hurry up because the children were crying in the car. I pointed to the tree bag saying that’s ours. He asked, “are you sure? Why is it there?” I told him yes I’m very sure. So then my husband just threw it on his shoulder unknowing it was in fact a Christmas tree.
I tried to act normal but couldn’t help laughing at the situation and the very pale face of the cashier. My husband with the tree hanging on his shoulder asked what’s in here anyways? Weren’t you supposed to buy some candles? I told him “oh, nothing special, I will tell you later.”
So we ran to the car parked close by with the Christmas tree on my husbands shoulder. He opened the back door and threw the bag in. We ran not because we had just purchased a black market Christmas tree but because of the crying babies, but admittedly it might have looked suspicious. I giggled about the experience for a long time and managed to keep the tree as a surprise for my husband.
The next day I set up the tree and decorations. Although very small, it didn’t look too bad at all. My husband laughed when he saw it and realized that he had been running around the ghetto with a Christmas tree on his back!
I was happy to have this little reminder of my own culture and family traditions in my Saudi home.
For me Christmas was never a religious holiday, it’s a family tradition and a strong part of our culture. It’s all about just spending quality time with family, sharing gifts, eating some traditional Finnish foods which I have come to love. It all reminds me of my childhood and the most cherished moments I have with my family are all from the seasons holidays!
P.S. I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t realize that christmas for most people living in western countries, is actually a cultural celebration and family tradition more than it is a religious holiday. I’ve even come across people who say celebrating christmas is like you’re worshipping a pagan god. Another misinformed belief is that having a tree has something to do with celebrating Jesus (pbuh) birthday which is not true.
Yes, there are people around the world who do celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. They view Christmas as the birth date of baby Jesus (who is a Prophet in Islam too btw) For me personally and millions of others, the holiday has never had that aspect to it. Nowadays Christmas has become sadly very commercial and not as much the family holiday it used to be. Atheists and many people of other faiths (even Muslims) do celebrate Christmas too btw, which proves even more the point that it’s simply not a religious holiday for everyone.P.P.S. If you’re looking for a tree in Riyadh you might want to check and ask around the riyaleen stores in Um alhammam area and Deerah souq. Go to the Filipino stores area in Batha Also check the compound christmas bazaars and coffee mornings.
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Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 75 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Follow my adventures in Saudi and beyond on instagram: instagram.com/blueabaya