Dinosaurs: A Disco Christmas in Saudi Arabia


 Y’all, meet Ahmed. My favorite Christmas decoration.  He may not look Christmasy, but believe it or not, he reminds me of the baby Jesus in the most wonderful way you can imagine. Ahmed, in all his glitter and glory, is a Tool of Worship.

As someone whose system of beliefs runs “deep and polka dotted” the holidays make me keenly aware of our diversity in faith. Christmas time can drudge up a lot of confusion for people who fall outside to picket fences of organized religion.

Do you say Merry Xmas or Happy Holidays?

Do you get offended if I just typed Xmas instead of Christmas?

Do you get offended by people who erect a Christmas tree in their home but never bother to celebrate the birth of Christ?

Do you get offended by people who hang dreidels on the Christmas trees?

Do you sometimes wonder, “Why the hell am I up at the butt crack of dawn roasting this damn turkey for four kids who will be too full of chocolate Santas to appreciate this hard work?”

Don’t answer that.

I have a confession: I’m not Aunt Peaches.  My real name is Second-Cousin Peaches. See, I don’t have any siblings, or, not in the typical sense at least. So being an Aunt is pretty much impossible.

Disappointed in me? I’m not. My niece Abigail’s Dad, Bubba, and his two siblings, Katie and John, are as close to brothers and sisters as I have ever known. We are close in age, and played and fought and sang and screamed and burped in each other’s faces the same as siblings. We even went to school together. I saw two of them just last weekend.

Abigail is named after my Mother who passed away when I was young, and who loved my cousins same as she loved me. They were, and are, my family. So when I was twelve, and they up and moved to Saudi Arabia, I was heartbroken. Years later I realized that their move was best thing that ever happened to me but that’s a story for another time.

How much do you know about Saudi Arabia? You probably know they aren’t exactly friendly toward Westerners like you and me. They keep a strict interpretation of Islamic law and are perceived to isolate themselves from outsiders in general. Its home to Mecca, which is as sacred as it gets in the Islamic system of beliefs. 

Tangent: If you are not familiar with the basic tenets of Islam, but you think that everyone on the planet should know about your religion, I want you to stop reading this and click right here right now. Yes, now. Read it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. 

Look, I’m not trying to evangelize any point of view here; I just don’t think anyone has any business running their mouth before they open their ears.

My family lived on a compound that functioned in the same way you hear people describe army bases in other countries–like a small town with walls and its own school, grocery store, post office etc. Thing is, even if everyone on this private compound was American or Canadian, they still lived under Saudi Arabian law. Breaking these laws could lead deportation or imprisonment, or better yet, corporal punishment, including the public amputation of your hand or foot, or maybe just a good ol’ fashioned flogging. Getting stoned to death in the town square was a not uncommon. Fun stuff, huh?

*Folks, I’m no international legal scholar, but let me give you a few of the more memorable highlights:

  • No drugs or alcohol of any kind. You couldn’t buy Wild Turkey in the whole dang country!
  • Human rights were not a priority. Women were treated sort of the same way our society would treat a small child –no voting, no driving, no walking around alone in strange places. Technically, I believe they could own property but no bank would accept their signature without her husband’s written authority. Women would shroud themselves head to toe in a type of dark body veil called an abiyah. Now, I know plenty of ladies who will tell you the abiyah is a liberating experience, but you sure could have fooled me. I could chit-chat about this for ages, but this story is already making me ramble, so if you want to hear more about human rights in Saudi Arabia, or women’s right’s in particular, I suggest you read Princess. It was real popular a few years back and might be outdated by now, but I tell you, it is a fascinating read.
  • Freedom of speech did not exist. Openly criticizing the government was forbidden.
  • Western influence is shunned at every opportunity. People would tell stories about buying a magazine in London for the plane ride into Saudi, where promptly upon arrival, a little man at the customs counter would flip through your magazine with a giant black marker and ink out any unsuitable images of girls in swimsuits, pictures of booze, etc..Click here to see images of Mariah Carey albums as they are sold inside Saudi Arabia vs. Everywhere Else. Fascinating stuff.
  • Freedom of religion does not exist. This was a big one. The Government strictly prohibited the public practice of any religion besides Islam. There were no churches. Non-Islamic/foreign/temporary workers were allowed to enter and live in the Kingdom, but they could only worship in secret inside the privacy of their homes. Items like Bibles and crucifixes were as illegal as drugs or violent weapons. Oh wait, violent weapons weren’t illegal at all. Just the same, sometimes people would sneak them in by hiding them in their luggage in a box of tampons or wrapped in dirty underwear, but it was risky. Any item deemed a “Tool of Worship” would be confiscated on the spot, and the person carrying the item could be deemed a zealot missionary and sent back to where they came from. This could also mean that you, or your family’s breadwinner, would loose their visa and thier job and be deported on the spot. Sometimes Westerners were given some slack, but generally speaking, the rules were firm and unfavorable.

* Please note my crass summary of these laws is mostly written in the past tense. I have read the Saudi Arabian legal system has come a long way in the last twenty years but I am inclined to think some things never change. I hope you’ll do your own research before forming an opinion. If someone reading this has first hand experience and would like to pipe up, well go ahead and chime in. I’m all ears.

So, given what I just said, how do you think people celebrated Christmas in a place like that? Not like you can find a contraband Christmas tree in the desert. There are no chestnuts roasting on the fire. No jingle bells to jangle. What would you do to mark the season?

You would get creative, that’s what you would do!  And that’s just what these families did. Thousands of them, every year would build Christmas trees out of cardboard and tomato cages or string lights on potted plants. Now that stuff seems trendy and eco-conscious, but back then, for them, it was the only option. Isn’t that wonderful?

My favorite story was about people building nativity scenes out of children’s toys. Sometimes they were nothing more than a manger made of a simple blanket fort with a few teddy bears underneath.  Other times they got real elaborate and theatrical; Barbie and Mr. Potato Head sat in for Mary and Joseph. Gi-Joes offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and murr, as a family of My Little Ponies looked on. Swarms of farm animals could be swapped in for matchbox cars or tiny plastic army soldiers.  Jesus was usually played by a Polly Pocket Doll, or they made him themselves out of clay.

Somewhere along the way I heard about a lady in Riyahd whose young son had outgrown his dinosaur obsession. She took the contents of his rejected toy chest, dipped them in glue and glitter, and went to town. The end result was a glittering nativity scene that took over most of their living room. They said it was wonderful. Some people might think that sounds scandalous, but I think it must have been beautiful. More important, it says something about how each of us can find a way to celebrate our family and our faith, even when we in the most unwelcoming surroundings.

Gosh, that storyline sounds familiar….reminds me of this of this baby that was born in cold dark barn, surrounded by humble creatures while worshiped by angels and kings. I wonder if there is a connection? (That’s sarcasm.)

Years passed….my family moved back to the US and we were back to tearing up the holidays with evergreen trees and A Barbra Streisand Christmas Album. (That’s not sarcasm.)

The holidays seemed much the same as always until the Christmas Eve after my father died. I was twenty and didn’t have anywhere to go. I was still in college and my friends had all gone home for the holidays and my boyfriend was working late in a restaurant. I couldn’t afford to travel to see my extended family down South. Probably just as well I was alone that night because I was really good at feeling sorry for myself. I mean, realllllly sorry. Like, Real Housewives of New Jersey style sorry. So I sat there and cried and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Eventually I got bored and frustrated and started cleaning…one thing lead to another and it was time to take the garbage out.

Just as I got to the alley behind my apartment, I saw him there. Standing on the edge of the dumpster waiting for me, a tuft of snow on his green plastic head. It was dark outside and there was the halo of a street light shining down around.

I have never seen a living nativity but I’m pretty sure the feeling of awe and wonderment I felt in that moment by the dumpster is as close to a spiritual fireworks as I will ever know.

Sure, it was just a just toy on a trash can. Sure, it was probably just some leftover trinket some kid dropped while carrying his other Christmas loot. Sure, that snow had been projected for days. Sure, that light shined down on that dumpster to keep the rats away. Sure, there were a hundred people walking down that alley who could have stumbled in at any moment….but in that moment, in my moment, I was sure that dinosaur was meant for me.

Two minutes later, I was back in my apartment, plastic dinosaur in hand. Ten minutes later he was dipped in glue and glitter. Thirty minutes later he was situated on top of the TV, surrounded by mementos; photos, books, a wallet, a necklace, a piece of ribbon…it must have been an odd sight to see them there, piled up on the TV that night, but what did that matter? It was an inventory of the people and places I love most. Not so much objects of desire, but tools of worship.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o
Six month update: To my surprise, this post created some controversy.
Click here to read what happened next.

Comments

  1. says

    Peaches, if anyone gets offended at a truth, well…they can go take a long walk of a *very* tall cliff!

    As a Pagan AND practising Witch, who lives in Australia, if I was to take offence at other people telling me I’m “wrong” and “will go to hell for my beliefs”, I’d be locked up by now! ^_^

    Thank you for sharing *your* truth with me.

  2. says

    I love your story and I think it reminds us of the true Christ – the one who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The “powers that be” in any country can take things away but that can’t take away the truth and love Christ has for us. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I absolutely postitively love it!!! I am going to go look for a dinosaur myself!

  3. says

    Hey you, I have been reading for while and LOVE what you blog, you are so zany and crazy and talented and cool but most of all SO YOU!!!

    I loved this post and sat here alternating between crying and giggling, okay so I will prob never glitter a dinosaur but I get it – all of it I get it and thank you so much for making everyone think

    Agree or disagree who cares as long as people think and come to their own but educated conclusion (I for one agree with you tho)

    Keep being you and know that your honesty and wicked sense of humor are wonderful xoxo

  4. says

    oh yes, we do what we have to do to release our spiritual selves. no matter what our beliefs are, or where we are, that essence of ourselves shines through. great post! now, hmm, what can i dip in glitter….?

  5. says

    As has been said many times before: ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways’. It’s so easy to get caught up in the trappings of Christmas. I’m glad you found your way to remember what it’s about.

  6. says

    What a great post! Takes me back to my early Christmases in Saudi. And to Christmas in Peru, where the nativity scenes are so exuberant that anything is welcome to join in! Whole shop windows would be given over to nativity scenes, and everyone from plastic kangaroos to Mr Potato Head (and the odd dinosaur) was invited to find a spot. I loved the joy of it- Christ is born, come on everyone (and everything!) and join the party! True Christmas spirit; and I think your dinosaur catches a bit of that!

  7. says

    I don’t know if I agree with everything you write. I probably don’t. Nevertheless I totally respect your opinions and where you’re coming from. Your story is very touching. Especially the moments of extreme loneliness that you’ve lived through and survived.

    I believe in the “live and let live” precept. And if you want to hang “dreidls on your Christmas tree” go ahead. As long as it hurts no one, it’s fine in my books.

    but others may NOT agree. and we must respect that too…

    Thanks Peaches for provoking my thoughts once again. Sometimes my brain needs exercise different from the kind that involves how to stick this doo-hicky on that bobble and still have it look perty. You provide that here. Thank you.

  8. says

    although glitter is strictly forbidden in the walls of my church (it gets in the carpet and never comes out) i’m going to share this story with all of my co-workers and make them cry like i did!

  9. christina says

    I know this is probably not the place to post this but I was one of the families that needed help with christmas my story is on the bloggess page for the 17th of dec between 1 and 5 in the afternoon my name is christina pena. The lady who I was matched with apparently sent a walmart egift card.but I never got anything in my email.I don’t know what to do.when she was matched with me and said she would help I was so happy.but I never recieved anything so now I’m back to tryin to figure out what to do.I seen u are willing to help.I don’t know if you have.my husband got deported yesterday and our car impounded.I have 4 kids and all my bills are behind.I work part time but its only enough to pay what I can my phone will be shut off tomorrow.I don’t even know how to tell my kids there is no santa.they have been so upset at ther fact that their daddy isn’t here that I can’t break it to them that there isn’t one.I’m so sorry to post on your blog like this but I don’t know what to do.I can even give you the info of my husband so you can call ICE(deportation) to know that I am not making this up.if you can help in anyway we so would appreciate it.I’m doing this for my kids they have been heartbroken by this.plz help

    Christina Pena
    Chrissy572@aol.com

  10. says

    I AM REALLY LUCKY THAT I AM A MUSLIM,I AM READING YOUR POST BUT I AM NOT AGREE WITH YOUR POINTS,ISLAM IS THE MODERATE RELIGION EVER..FROM 14 CENTURIES ITS SPREADING BECAUSE OF ITS MODERATE THINKING & RULES,YOU REALLY WRITE SOME WRONG THINGS ABOUT MY RELIGION & I AM GOING TO WEEP TO READ THIS,I HAVE MANY COUSINS & FRIEND IN SAUDI ARABIA,THEY ARE LINING THERE SMARTLY WITHOUT ANY TOUGH RULES,EVEN THEY ARE NOT HAVING ANY STRICTNESS,THEY CAN DRIVE,BUT THEY HAVE TO WEAR THEIR GOWN & SCARF WHENEVER THEY WENT OUT..
    IF WOMEN HAVE NO POWER THERE THEN HOW NORA BINT ABDULLAH AL-FAYYAZ APPOINTED EDUCATION MINISTER IN SAUDI ARABIA??
    YOU REALLY HURT ME…IF YOU ARE NOT AGREE WITH ANY RELIGION,GO AHEAD..DONT TOUCH OTHERS & DONT LEAVE YOURS..THIS IS THE RULE BUT I AM REALLY FEELING SAD…THERE ARE SO MANY ILL POINTS IN YOUR RELIGION TOO BUT IF I MENTION WE WILL HAVE MORE DISTANCES & WHICH IS NOT GOOD..
    WELL I WILL NOT LIKE TO READ YOUR BLOG MORE,GOOD BYE FOREVER..

  11. says

    Creative Mind, I read your comment and my stomach turned thinking how I have hurt you. I have follwed your blog for some time and admire your talents and willingness to share your thoughts and creativity with all of us. Inflicting pain was never my intention and I deeply apologize if that was the result. There are a lot of things I could say here but I am going to boil it down to three essential points;
    1. My disparaging description of the Saudi Arabian legal system, and my outlook on the religion of Islam are two totally different things.
    2. I’m not sure how it came across that I was bashing Muslims, but for the record, I have nothing but admiration for Islam and those who believe in it. I am friends with Muslims, I have lived with Muslims and spent time in several countries where Islam is widely practiced. Am I an expert? No. Am I entitled to share my thoughts and experiences? Yes.
    3. Your reaction illustrates a lot of what my story was all about; asking people to think about where faith stops and organized religion starts. Why are certain places, people, traditions considered sacred? If you didn’t have access to those things, would it alter your faith?

    I don’t have answers to those questions I just wanted to share my story and ask the questions. Again, I apologize if my words inflicted pain to you or anyone else. After reading your words, I can understand why you will not be my friend, but I will still think of myself as yours.

  12. Anonymous says

    hi aunt peaches, I don’t comment much and wanted to tell u I got the story. I see why some people are ripping on u about it too but I get it and think it’s great ur asking people to think about stuff they normally don’t. I also think it’s weird all these comments are very different at interpreting the story so thats a good sign I think. Happy festivis!

  13. says

    Thanks Anonymous :)
    Your comment means a lot to me. It’s nice to hear that. It’s hard to share something very painful and see it thrown back in a public way. Nobody’s fault but my own, however, I think I’ll need to thicken my skin before posting anymore non-crafty-business anymore.
    …blah blah blah…just the same, I really appreciate you saying so and hope you will comment again soon :)

  14. says

    oh no! Peaches PLEASE don’t stop writing about the non-crafty YOU stuff.
    Stating a well thought-out opinion and encouraging other people to research and form their own opinion is NOT offensive.
    For the record I was completely charmed by this post; I’m a fairly staunch atheist but I DO believe that sometimes the universe (or your imagination or whatever it is that lets you see a discarded dinosaur when you need it the most)throws you a proverbial bone.
    At anyrate, I hope your holidays are… glittery.
    x

  15. says

    Gosh, thanks Erin.
    You know, sometimes it’s toy dinosaurs, and sometimes it is someone you never even met, who show up and provide encouragement when you need it most.
    I appreciate it more than you know ;)
    Note, my winking emoticon to match your profile picture (My cleverness knows no bounds)
    Glittery holidays to you as well!

  16. says

    Hi, my darling Peach, sorry I am late to this post. I loved it in its entirety. So clear that your descriptions of repressive laws in the country were not in ANY way disparaging of the Muslim religion. So, so sad that Creative Mind took it that way (I’ve been following her, too). OH DEAR. If only we could slow her down and ask her to read it again, hanging over her shoulder to point stuff out and make sure she’s not misinterpreting. And I hope there weren’t people who were offended by the idea of glitter worship. It is a great story and a beautiful dino, representing freedom of religion under repressive regimes, and for you personally, representing lots of memories, happiness, sadness and a multitude of important things. I add my vote to the other peeps who hope you won’t censor yourself, because, yes, we love your crafts, but we come here for much more than that. Oh, also, can’t wait to find out (someday) why the family moving to Saudi Arabia was the best thing that ever happened to you! Much love, Mich

  17. says

    The best damn Christmas/ xmas/ holiday story I have ever read. I don’t do religion full stop and the only reason I enjoy this time of year is for the memories. I get freaked when The Carphone Warehouse (or was it phones 4 u? Or any other random mobile provider?) tells me that the IPhone4 is a stocking filler and I could be sick all over my crafty tree decorations when big supermarket chains blast out that with their half price turkey this will be the bes celebration ever. Get real, folks. Wether you remember the birth of Jesus, the life of Mohammed or, for all I care, the first fish growing legs and climbing up a tree, make it about celebrating whatever you think deserves celebrating.
    In my case, this year I celebrate the fact that for the first time ever, I am decorating the house for the little minions to give them good memories to carry with them throughout their lives, candles and all. As we try to do every single time they are with us, only this time with tinsel.
    That dinosaur is the most beautiful thing ever, after the flowery cow, that is.
    You are yet to offend me, girl.

  18. says

    You’re such an amazing writer and I love your story, especially the part about finding the dinosaur. I get it and it’s the kind of magic that I really believe in. I love that you have this whimsical streak in you, you inspire me to reconnect with mine :)

    xo Mary Jo

  19. Anonymous says

    Aunt Peaches…thank you for posting. Maybe you will offend some, but there are those of us out there that love reading the thoughts of an open minded person. And maybe those that you offend…maybe they need to be offended. Maybe it will help open their minds too. Being spiritual should be about what feels right TO YOU…not what someone tells you should be spiritual.

    Please girl…keep on truckin!

  20. says

    THANK YOU for all the wonderful encouragement you guys. I can tell that some of y’all blog and know how easy it is to take things personally…and likewise, chances are, you also know how amazing it feels to hear kind words from total strangers. It doesn’t get any better.
    It’s a joy and a blessing every time I open my inbox and I am so grateful that you would take a minute to lend me your thoughts.
    Thank you a million times over :)

  21. says

    I started subscribing to your blog just a couple months ago, so I didn’t see this entry when you first posted it. But I’m so glad I’ve seen it now. I love glittered stuff, of course, but I love the spirit of genuine good will to men (and women) you embody. Thanks for sharing and inspiring!

  22. Guest says

    I know it is wayy late to comment but I just found your blog and I love it! I am a Christian and I am living in Saudi Arabia now and I think it is very brave that you wrote this post. As years passed by, some of these still ring true but some things have gotten better… (about the religious objects) depending which company sponsors you, I suppose. I had a good laugh of the Mariah Carey things :) and yeah I have seen even the skin of the woman wearing shorts at the back of Special K cereal covered up in black markers :) All in all it is definitely a unique experience living in a different culture and sometimes it makes us appreciate the freedom we’ve taken for granted before. It’s in the little things. :)
    Btw it’s abiyah, not abaya… and Riyadh, not Riyahd. Sorry just can’t help it :P

  23. Jenni Grace says

    This right here is beautiful. Pure, unadulterated beauty. As a person so passionate about social justice and human rights for all of humanity and a Christian young woman, this is so powerful and moving. I know it’s been a couple of years since this post was created, but I recently started following your blog and saw this post in the crafty section and your FAQ and I was drawn into it. It’s amazing. Thank you for sharing. Who cares what others think. It’s just incredible that you had the guts to share something so moving and inspirational as this. Thank you!

    Oh, and I think I’ll make my own dinosaur/toy/creative nativity for my apartment this Christmas season.

  24. Anonymous says

    WOW!!! I’m almost speechless!! I stumbled on your blog after finding your wonderful post on Giant Sunflowers. And after reading that tutorial, and loving your candid and (mostly) uncensored style of writing, I couldnt help but continue to click. The glittered dino was actually an accident, as i was trying for the things your mother taught you (which I cant wait to read next).

    I pray that i find that you havent suppressed your writing style or “THICKENED YOUR SKIN”. You are obviously a very special person with an incredible ability to express your thoughts, emotions and stories. So very thought provoking.

    I cant wait to share your story with everyone, especially my two teenage daughters. I have a feeling i will be finding glittery, sparkly things around the house next Christmas. And many more after that! I can just picture walking into the homes of family and friends in the years to come, only to find glittery dinos or the like, in each one!! Which makes me curious – – i wonder how many people already do, since you posted this years ago??? I would guess more than you might think :)

    Please know you have touched my heart, my spirit and my faith. God Bless You, Aunt Peaches!!!! God Bless You!!!!

    So much for being speechless, huh??

    Beth Oleary

  25. says

    Hi There, I am a Brit and hew to your blog. I can see this blog was written a long time ago, but having lived in Riyadh S. A. For the past eight years I have some insight into the wsy of life there. I don’t really recognise the country you are talking about but that is your impression, not mine. I have a bible that I brought with me from the U.K. and I can have for my personal use. There are services at the Embassies every week and all the expat community are welcome. I have a Christmas tree that I bought in Saudi the first year I was there and still have. Nearly all Muslims I meet around Christmas time wish me a Happy Christmas and this in the ultra religious capital. Although women cannot drive at the moment there is a movement campaigning for that right and will happen soon. The Government have just announced that the fledgling film industry is to get funding which a few years ago would be unheard of. Husband and wives increasingly hold hands in public and more and more young women are uncovering their faces. They are a gentle race, except when the men drive, and I respect them very much.
    Anyway, love your blog and love all your how to’s. Best Wishes, Allyson

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