RIYADH, Saudi Arabia Past the stuffed animals and the congratulatory baby baskets, two half-empty boxes of glass Christmas-tree ornaments sit partly obscured on a nearby shelf.
As evinced by the atmosphere in this Riyadh gift shop, Christmas is mostly hidden in this desert kingdom, where Islam is the only accepted religion.
Expatriate workers hold discreet holiday parties within walled compounds, out of sight of the government’s religious police, who guard against offenses to the faith. For many other foreigners, the anniversary of Christ’s birth is a private day of reflection.
“I only pray in my room,” says a Roman Catholic laborer from Sri Lanka, noting that there is little else to do to celebrate Christmas.
Some embassies, he said, organize gatherings for their citizens during the holiday season, but generally not on Christmas Day, to avoid offending Saudi sensibilities.
Churches are not permitted “freedom of religion does not exist,” a recent State Department report said about Saudi Arabia though some expatriates gather privately throughout the year for religious services.
It is not that way everywhere in the Middle East. In the neighboring Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, luxury hotels are decorated with brightly lit trees and poinsettias, and signs advertise Christmas meals.
But in Riyadh, the mere mention of Christmas leads many expatriates to lower their voices and fidget. Just buying a Christmas card requires a whispered journey into a greeting card underworld.
At the Riyadh gift shop where a few festive decorations were tucked away among other goods, a Filipino shakes his head when asked about Christmas cards. But the employee gives directions to another shop, giving the reference of the manager, who also is a Filipino.
“He’ll give you one in secret secret because it’s ‘haram’ here, you know,” he says, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.”