Christianity and Christmas in the Arab World

There are thousands of different misconceptions about Arabs and the Arab World.

One such misconception is that all Arabs are Muslim. Few people outside of the Arab World know that Christianity is not only present but celebrated in the Middle East. What is more, few are aware that Arabs are some of the most pious and devout Christians in the world. Naturally, the lack of this knowledge leads to another common misconception; that is, the belief that Christmas in the Middle East cannot possibly “feel like Christmas“. Of course, this belief also stems from the notion that there is only one correct way of celebrating Christmas – that is, the Western way.

Films tend to portray Christmas in one specific way and this teaches people that a Christmas celebration must resemble what is depicted in the films. This means that for a Christmas to “feel like Christmas”, the following things need to be present: snow, cookies, carolling, gingerbread houses, ice skating, eggnog, Christmas trees, lights, etc.

Have you ever watched a popular Christmas film depict the holiday season in the Middle East? Probably not. After all, how can someone even celebrate Christmas in a place where 15°C is considered cold?

Dubai 2019

Admittedly, the Middle East does not have snow, or carolling, or ice skating, or eggnog, or whatever else is portrayed as essential for a Christmas celebration. However, this does not mean that Christmas in the Arab World “cannot feel like Christmas” – all it means is that it is not a Western Christmas.

Rand AlMakhamreh, a Jordanian Christian who has spent her entire life celebrating the holiday season in the Middle East shared: “In all honesty, for me Christmas is what you make it to be. There are plenty of Christmas events that are always happening around this time of year. Hotels hosting Christmas tree lightings, gingerbread house making workshops and so much more. Also, all the shops are filled with Christmas decorations, plenty to make sure your home feels festive for you and your family. We don’t necessarily have winter wonderland or Christmas carollers knocking on our doors. It may not be snowing with every house on the street decorated with light for the festive season, but the beautifully decorated malls, shops, and outdoor venues definitely make the effort to make the festive season just as special.”

In the UAE, a country with a predominantly Muslim population, the Christmas season is celebrated in a grand and beautiful way. Edarabia reports that Emiratis or UAE citizens account for only 11.5% of the country’s population. This means that the remaining 88.5% are expatriates from all around the world. Although it is true that there are many expats from the Western world, the Christmas celebrations and decorations are not designed specifically for them. They are designed for all (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Coptic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, the UAE’s Christian population is currently 12.9%. What is more, statistics show that this number is steadily increasing due to continuous immigration.

Religious groups in the UAE (Pew Research)

With over 1.1 million Christians in the UAE, Christmas can and does feel like Christmas. While the UAE may not have snow or real Christmas trees, it still ensures that buildings, malls, hotels, and all outdoor venues are decorated. In fact, Abu Dhabi unveiled ‘the most expensive Christmas tree’ in 2010. The 13-metre fake evergreen tree was decorated with diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones; in total, the Christmas tree which was located in the lobby of the Emirates Palace was worth around $11.4 million. While this record has now been broken by Spain’s $15 million tree, the 2010 record illustrates that Christmas is celebrated and honoured – albeit in a slightly different way – in the UAE.

Source: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

It is important to note that in addition to the decorations and Christmas events that are held by the country during the holiday season, all the Christian (and even some Muslim) homes are decorated too. What makes Christmas in the UAE so special is that every single home celebrates it differently.

Personally speaking, I love how my Arab friends can celebrate the same day in a completely different way to how I – a Bulgarian living in the UAE – celebrate Christmas. Moreover, I love how my Arab friends who do not celebrate Christmas always acknowledge the special day for those of us who do. As Mille World writes, “There is no better time to celebrate religious co-existence in the Middle East than Christmas time.”

It is only when you celebrate Christmas in a country like the UAE that you will understand how it is possible that a place with a predominantly Muslim population and no snow can feel like Christmas. At the end of the day, it is not the snow, the carollers, or Christmas tree farms that make up Christmas: it is the people and the love we surround ourselves with.

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