Saturday, December 8, 2012

Christmas In Saudi Arabia

I celebrated a few Christmases while living and working in Saudi Arabia.  The first one was, in some ways, the worst.  I arrived at the end of September just as Desert Shield was beginning and was shocked to find out that, for civilian contractors, holding Christian church services is forbidden.  Anything referring to Christmas is verboten; no Christmas cards, wrap, trees or decorations are allowed to be sold in the Kingdom.  When westerners do gather to attend church it is usually done inside a western compound and services are very discreet.  Even then, it was not uncommon to have the Saudi Religious police invade a western compound and arrest Christian worshippers.

The military in Saudi is protected because our troops were never going to allow Saudi religious police to invade a military base.  Too, military base exchanges freely sell Christmas cards and decorations and even have Christmas trees flown in.  And while civilian contractors have all of their mail and packages inspected through Saudi customs, military mail is flown directly into the bases and are not subject to Saudi customs checks.

In the absence of anything Christmas in my first year I decided to write Christmas short stories and poems and send them home to my family.  Beginning on the 1st of December, and continuing through Christmas day, I sent a poem or story home for each day preceding Christmas.  It was my way of honoring the season.  Many of the old hands though did indeed have Christmas decorations that they had bought from departing military guys.  Artificial Christmas trees that could be used year after year were prized possessions and always carried a healthy resale price, if one could find one.

For those of you who may not recall, Americans cruised through Desert Shield/Desert Storm in record time.  By the time 35 squadrons began mounting massive air attacks against the Iraqis, Saddam and his army melted like butter.  The allied ground attack consisted mostly of collecting prisoners as Iraqis surrendered in great masses.

One of the advantages of the brevity of that campaign was an excess of goods stocked in Base Exchange warehouses and the military did not want to incur the expense of flying out the thousands of tons of goods amassed in anticipation of a war that might have lasted longer.

Under normal circumstances, military retirees working in Saudi are not allowed to shop in the Base Exchange.  But, due to bulging warehouses, the powers that be that ran Base Exchange operations quietly put the word out that military retirees could shop in the BX, at least for a time.

We military contractors were elated.  We hauled out our military ID cards and invaded the BX!  Because no pork products are allowed in Saudi, I was delighted to buy up six or eight cans of Spam and a small canned ham.  And, fortunately, the BX had lots of Christmas decorations and cards left in stock.  I bought my share of them and took them back to my Saudi compound home.

The next time Christmas came around I was well prepared with a small artificial Christmas tree and lots of Christmas lights and decorations to adorn my Saudi home.  It made being away from home just a bit less lonely.

One of the most endearing things I experienced during Christmas and at New Years was the generosity of families who hosted me in their home for those holidays.  I was on "bachelor status" for my many years in Saudi and it was such a joy to share a meal with a family on the holiest of holidays.

So, even though Christmas was banned by the Saudi's, it never stopped us from celebrating.  Just as the ancient Christians held their church services in the underground catacombs below Rome, those of us who were determined to worship Christ held church services and informal masses in private homes.  In many ways, the difficulty of celebrating Christ's birth made it all the more special and endearing.

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