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Saudis Celebrate Christmas Less Quietly

The lights had been strung, the guest list was set and the Santa hats were ready to go for the first Christmas party Umniah Alzahery and Mike Bounacklie would openly throw in Saudi Arabia. This in a country famous for its ultraconservative form of Islam. The only problem was the tree, which they had to procure in whispers from a gift store proprietor who quietly produced one from a darkened room.

Saudis and their government have long played peekaboo over certain behaviors that were officially banned, but privately widespread. These days, however, Christmas is bursting out of the shadows.

Over the last year or so, shop windows in Riyadh have begun to display wink-wink-nod-nod gift boxes in red and green and advent calendars, while cafes dispense gingerbread cookies and florists advertise “holiday trees.”

It is all possible because of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has won over millions of young Saudis by relaxing some of the stricter religious rules. He is showcasing what he hopes will be seen as a newly tolerant, moderate Saudi Arabia to attract foreign investment and tourists.

On a recent evening, Maha Aljishi and her 13-year-old daughter were wandering through Riyadh Boulevard, an enormous new shopping, dining, and entertainment complex when they stumbled on a giant gingerbread house and a herd of twinkling reindeer.

They were the kind of decorations Ms. Aljishi and her relatives once feared getting caught putting up at home. “Am I in Saudi Arabia?” Ms. Aljishi wondered aloud. “Is this a dream? Just a few years ago, this was all haram” (an Arabic word meaning forbidden by Islamic law).

Revan Moha, 19, has never left Saudi Arabia, but nonetheless was desperate to find a Christmas tree in Riyadh this December. “Oh,” she said recently, “I wish it would snow!” She was delighted to learn that trees were readily available in party supply stores--artificial ones, of course.

Possible Preaching Angle:

Although Christmas may be celebrated in Saudi Arabia for mixed reasons, it is an opportunity for them to hear “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). As Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

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