Christmas comes to Yemen [Archives:2006/1010/Last Page]

December 25 2006
King Herod and his assistant.
King Herod and his assistant.
Dina Al-Ameena
Most Yemenis likely are unaware that for more than 20 years, Christmas has been celebrated in Yemen in the form of an annual dramatization of the biblical story of Jesus' birth, called a live nativity.

Youths depict the action and some dialogue as a narrator reads the gospel account of Jesus' birth involving such characters as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Yahya), Jesus' mother Mary, King Herod of Judea, three wise men and the angel Gabriel. At one point, Mary rides a donkey while entering Bethlehem, where Jesus is born, as biblical prophecies foretold.


A family working at the U.S. embassy in Sana'a initiated the nativity drama involving youths aged 13 to 18 from the Sana'a International Christian Fellowship performing three shows outside on a small wooden stage.

Always staged at a private residence in the Safiah neighborhood, this year's performance involved approximately 20 youths from Germany, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, South Africa, India, South Korea and the United States.

In the past, more live animals were involved in the show, such as sheep, goats, a donkey and a camel. Children especially liked riding the donkey and the camel, one of the sesame grinders in the Old City.

At first, the camel's owners simply would loan it to the production for free (receiving some compensation from organizers); however, they began charging more for it, so they dispensed with it, only using a donkey.

Besides more animals, previous years also involved attendees moving inside afterward to sing Christmas carols. Other former Christmas festivities in Sana'a included a pantomime by British expatriates and a community choir of various embassy families.

The event used to be fairly open, but organizers have been more watchful since 2002 due to heightened security. Attendee and performer numbers dipped significantly lower during Yemen's Civil War and the first Gulf War. Despite such conflicts, numbers have remained steady, averaging approximately 50 attendees per show and peaking at about 80 attendees per show in previous years.

Audience reactionsSana'a resident Abdulsalam, 35, observed, “I think it's nice to celebrate the birth of Jesus because we remember that he came for a task. Therefore, we must remember him so we won't forget what he did.”

Abdulrahman, 30, of Taiz marveled, “It's beautiful to be in the open air! This is a great opportunity to celebrate Christmas because people here don't know anything about it. I hope this event can explain to them the true identity and meaning of Christmas.”

First-time attendee, Hamdan Zaid, 33, from Ibb said, “I want to understand the life of Jesus, so this event was a good opportunity. The actions made it easier to understand.”

One long-time Sana'a resident noted, “It's a special tradition. [Christmas] is better here than in America with all of the commercialism of the holiday. I prefer celebrating here because I can focus more on the true meaning of Christmas.”

Another Sana'a long-timer agreed, “We're so close to the original biblical culture here. I think all nationalities like to see the story – no matter what religion they are – because it's part of Christmas.”

English student Mohammed Al-Yazidi, 21, said, “It's my first time to attend a celebration like this. I heard a little about the story, but this was the first time to see it. It was good.”

However, Adel Al-Khawlani, 28, of Sana'a pointed out, “We have a different story. The Qur'an didn't mention Joseph; he wasn't present when Maryam gave birth. I was curious about other cultures and ideologies. This was somewhat new to me, but I heard about it in some Christian books, so it was similar.”

Performers' views

This was the sixth year for 17-year-old Graham McCullough, who played King Herod's advisor. Asked why they perform it, he replied, “We do it for the kids – those in the audience as well as the performers. It's a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and a reminder of Christ's birth.”

Playing an angel, 11-year-old Nadia observed, “It really gets people thinking about what Christmas is all about – not just presents and Christmas trees – but about Jesus' birth. I see lots of people in the audience with their eyes shining.”

This year's director commented, “There aren't many Christmas events here, so it's a good reminder of what Christmas is all about – not just Santa Claus or New Year's, like most people think. It brings the Christmas season here.”