© Brid Beeler. All rights reserved.
Christmas in the Kingdom has been in the international news recently, with many stories detailing how more and more shops openly sell Christmas trees, lights, tinsel, and the other decorations westerners want to buy for their festive celebrations.
This more relaxed attitude toward Christmas celebrations has been gradually building momentum over the past several years, but when I first arrived in Kingdom in 1989, things were very different. You might find some wrapping paper and a few generic decorations being discretely sold out of the back room of a few shops, but nothing was in shop windows or on open display. Those in the know would quietly share such valuable intelligence with others in the expat community in search of baubles for the holiday.
I never found the absence of holiday paraphernalia in the shops to be a problem. Christmas had become too commercialized back home and I certainly didn’t miss being bombarded with all those reminders about how many shopping days were left until Christmas. Then too, one simply learned to substitute. The beautiful handmade Kashmiri painted papier-mache balls and stars for sale in the souqs throughout the Kingdom made wonderful ornaments for any indoor plant that found itself designated the “Christmas tree” for the festive season. If a suitable plant was not available, acacia limbs or palm leaves could suffice.
© Brid Beeler. All rights reserved.
My second year in Kingdom, I unexpectedly received a most precious Christmas gift from a Muslim man from India. He was one of the workers who made up the maintenance, transportation and administrative staff that helped to make our time in Kingdom so much easier.
About a week before Christmas, I heard he was looking for me and so I went to the Administration offices to find him. With a big smile on his face, he said, “I have a present for you,” and then proceeded to give me a Christmas Nativity scene which he had made from clay. I was astounded and very touched by his kindness. The nativity set was simply beautiful…perhaps a little unconventional, but beautiful. He had carefully molded two large camels, a donkey, cow, and baby camel. There also was the infant Jesus, the angel Gabriel, a shepherd with a lamb, and one of the Three Wise men, bearing gifts of, presumably, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The colors were something of a surprise. He painted the two large camels draped in purple and pink robes, but most surprising was Our Lady Mary, who was in scarlet red, and Joseph was in Kelly green with blond hair! Joseph reminded me of St. Patrick, who is the Patron Saint of my native Ireland.
While Our Lady and Joseph were painted in unexpected colors, this set has traveled the world with me, crossing oceans in shipping containers many times. Without a doubt, it is one of my most prized and loved possessions, one that is brought out every Christmas. And each Christmas, I think fondly upon that man’s kindness towards me. I have no idea if he ever made another one. But I will always treasure his gift and the gift of kindness towards me at Christmas time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
About the Author: Brid Beeler first went to live in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and stayed for a decade. Her career then led her to live and work in Yemen and Oman and work for some of the world’s top travel companies. She currently heads Brid Beeler Travel (www.bridbeelertravel.com) and travels in and out of the Kingdom regularly on tour or collaborating on programs. She has traversed every corner of Arabia and is never happier than delving into the culture and treasures of the peninsula.
Brid began taking American travelers to Saudi Arabia in 1998 and, in addition to operating tours, she has trained guides, worked on award-winning documentaries, and written extensively on the region. In 2015, she was the Tour Director for the Smithsonian tour to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, which followed their internationally acclaimed Roads of Arabia exhibit.
She has presented papers on eco-tourism in the Middle East region and was one of only a handful of women invited by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation & Development and the Supreme Commission for Tourism to speak at the first International Conference on Eco-Tourism in Saudi Arabia in 2002. She has written for Foreign Affairs and the Arab British Chamber of Commerce. In addition, she has published travel articles in Middle Eastern newspapers and spoken on Middle Eastern travel at embassy functions in Washington DC. A strong proponent of Middle Eastern art, culture and traditions, she has spoken on the ethnic silver jewelry of the Arabian Peninsula at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle.
Back home in Ireland, Brid enjoys walks on the beach with her latest saluki, Rishan.