Winter Wonderland in Riyadh (right). Images used for illustrative purposes only.

Public Christmas celebrations have long been strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia and are still off-limit to this day. Even though the kingdom is host to over 1.8 million Christian expats, the community is not allowed to publicly practice its faith as there are no official churches in the country and, of course, no holiday celebrations.

So what do Christian residents who call Saudi Arabia their temporary home do when it's time for Christmas? Well, many fly back home for the holidays, but those who can't afford it every year are often left with no other option than to secretly host private celebratory gatherings at home. 

Over the past few years, underground Christmas festivities have become a thing in the kingdom. We spoke to Christians based in Saudi Arabia to learn more about the phenomenon.

"People might think we don't celebrate Christmas in Saudi [Arabia] but we do"

"Even when I went to Beirut for my college studies I would always fly back to Saudi [Arabia] for Christmas with the family. It's a tradition and we're all used to it now. People might think we don't celebrate Christmas in Saudi [Arabia] but we do," Lana, a 27-year-old Lebanese teacher who's been living in the kingdom with her family for over 20 years, told us. 

With no public celebrations and events taking place in the kingdom, the holiday cheer is practically nonexistent, the Christian expat said. Living in a compound among other foreigners has helped Lana and her family celebrate Christmas and host gatherings and parties on a yearly basis with no problem.

The festivities are just as they would be back home, according to Lana, minus going to church. Lots of food, music, red and green decorations, lights, and, of course, gifts ... though they can't exactly be found under a tree. This is because the kingdom prohibits the sale of Christmas trees and it's not allowed to personally import them into the country. So unless you smuggle one, you're going to have to get creative.

"You go out and there isn't anything that reminds you of Christmas"

Business manager Mina is an Egyptian Coptic Christian who's resided in the kingdom with his wife and three-year-old son for the past five years. The family can't afford to fly out to Egypt for Christmas every year and so have spent two holiday seasons in Saudi Arabia so far. They celebrate with a small community of Copts that lives close to them. 

"Church is a huge part of Christmas for us so the first year we were here for the holiday was so hard on me and my wife. We prayed at home and watched live sermons online but there's always this feeling that something is missing. You go out and there isn't anything that reminds you of Christmas, so it was tough," Mina said. 

The family's second holiday season in the country was better, the 35-year-old admitted, after they'd met friends and hosted a small Christmas gathering at home.

The recent reforms happening in the kingdom along with a Coptic mass that took place for the first time in the country's history last year have made the community quite optimistic over their future in Saudi Arabia.

"We celebrate Christmas with a huge bash at our embassy every year"


"I fly back home mostly in the spring or summer so going back for Christmas isn't that much of an option mostly because my kids are in school here and it's such a hassle," Amanda, a pharmaceutical representative who's resided in Saudi Arabia for over nine years, told us. 

Amanda and her family celebrate Christmas at a huge party held at the premises of her homeland's embassy in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia's government, as she believes, is well aware of these parties but chooses to overlook them. 

"We celebrate Christmas with a huge bash at our embassy every year. It's lots of fun with dinner and music. Then we go back home and open gifts so we don't miss out on a lot," the expat added. 

The only thing the mother-of-two thinks is a downfall is the fact that her children don't get to experience the holiday vibes when they're outside their community, compound, and embassy. 

"We host prayers but always worry about getting caught"

After 20 years in Saudi Arabia and little means to go back to the Philippines every year for Christmas, Marie joins community celebrations held in private in the kingdom.

"We can't celebrate outside so we always host a gathering in someone's home. Every year it's a different person who hosts. We bring food and spend time together so that we cheer each other up," the mother-of-three said. 

Many in her community usually can't afford to go back home for the holidays and so have to spend them in the kingdom. They host prayers at different houses every year but this comes with a huge risk.

"We host prayers but always worry about getting caught because it's illegal to practice things like this here. We do it in secret because part of us wants to feel this connection to one another that we used to feel back home," she explained.

Marie told us that only a small number of those she works with greet her for Christmas as many of them believe it's "haram" to do so in Islam. This idea stems from fundamentalist clerics who state that wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" means they're going against core teachings of Islam. But that's certainly not true and isn't a rhetoric held by all muslim scholars. 

"Christmas is about the month leading up to it and we miss out on it here"

"You can't really feel the holiday season in Saudi, Christmas is about the month leading up to it and we miss out on it here. There are no trees or lights anywhere, it's just a normal month for everyone so you don't get this cheerful vibe in the weeks before the holiday," Bassem, a Lebanese expat in Saudi Arabia, lamented. 

It's financially hard on many families residing in the kingdom to go back home every holiday season, so they end up hosting Christmas parties at home. 

"Most big families can't afford to keep traveling back and forth all year so they get used to staying here during holiday seasons and we create our own traditions. Our celebrations are low-key and very private but we try to make them meaningful especially for the kids," he added. 

Like many Christian expats in Saudi Arabia, Bassem hopes that one day the kingdom will allow the community to practice its faith more openly. He's growing more optimistic as the country opens up to the world and focuses on introducing more tolerance within its society.