Greetings: “Colo sana wintom tiebeen!” for Merry Christmas and “Kullu Sana wa Antum bi-Khayr!” for Happy Holidays!
The Orthodox Coptics Of Egypt
Egypt is considered the cradle of civilization and because the Holy Family spent time in there with the baby Jesus, Christmas (The Nativity) is a special celebration in this country. Orthodox Christians in Egypt are called Copts. They have their own Pope who is the head of the Coptic churches of Egypt and the Sudan. They follow the Coptic calendar which has survived from ancient Pharonic Egypt. Each of the twelve months in the Coptic calendar retains a vestige of an ancient deity or feast, more than likely reflecting the conservative nature of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. By the Coptic calendar, the birth of Jesus is celebrated on the 7th of January or Khiahk.
In preparation for the Christmas holiday, Coptics fast for 43 days, celebrating the 40 day fast Moses endured while receiving the Ten Commandments and the three days associated with the Egyptian event of moving the mountain of El Mokattam. No animal products are consumed during this time including fish, dairy, eggs and meat. The fast lasts from November 25th until January 6th (Advent), though most only fast for the last week, after when the majority of the New Year and Christmas celebrations begin. This is a great time of celebration when choirs sing Christmas carols mixed with international and Coptic music.
Much of the Christmas season celebration begins in the last week leading up to Christmas (January 7), cooking takes place, homes are decorated with lights and Christmas trees (real and artificial), and cards are sent. Christmas is not as commercial as in the west and most gifts are purchased at bazaars that support local charities.
Today, the Coptic Nativity is celebrated by a special midnight service at church, followed by the ringing of the church’s bells. Some Coptic Christians travel to churches thought to be situated on the route of the Holy Family as they traveled through Egypt. The largest service is conducted by the Pope and broadcast on Egyptian television at 11 p.m. Some services can last from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Churches are decorated with colored lamps, mangers and angels. One can imagine what a beautiful sight this must be.
Children receive new clothes and gifts after the Coptic fast. On Christmas morning people visit friends and neighbors. Children in Egypt go to bed early in the hopes that Papa Noël climbs through the window, has a sweet biscuit (kahk) and leaves them gifts. They are also given El “aidia,” a feast gift consisting of a small sum of money to buy sweets, toys and ice cream after the fast.
Christmas In The Past
Coptics have had the freedom to practice their religion, including feasts, since Islam came to Egypt in 642. During The Nativity, churches have always been decorated with special candles and lamps and Copts gave candles and lamps as gifts to family and friends as well as to the poor. It is believed the candles are in memory of Joseph the Carpenter, who lit lamps to protect The Virgin Mary from the cold on the night of The Nativity. For centuries The Nativity was celebrated by performances in the streets and by fire-shows.
Other Christmas Celebrations
Other sects of Christians also celebrate Christmas in Egypt, some on the same day as the west. Westerners themselves have a long history of spending Christmas in Egypt. This began in the days of Egyptian travel during the late 19th and 20th centuries, when wealthy Europeans would winter in there. Back then, hotels would decorate for Christmas on an elaborate scale by turning their ground floors into winter scenes complete with artificial snow, frosted trees and plants. Logs would burn on fireplaces and visitors would dress elegantly for evening events.
Today, many Muslims in Egypt participate in some Christmas celebrations and likewise Christians participate in some Muslim holidays. Although religious beliefs are different, there is a surprising amount of interfaith coexistence.
Surprising Christmas Tree Trivia
The birthplace of the Christmas tree is in Egypt, and its origin dates from a period long before the Christian era. The palm tree is known to put forth a shoot every month and a spray of this tree with twelve shoots was used in Egypt during the time of the winter solstice as a symbol of the year completed.
The palm tree spray of Egypt, on reaching Italy, became a branch of any other tree (the tip of the fir was found most suitable from its pyramidal or conical shape) and was decorated with burning tapers lit in honor of Saturn, whose Saturnalia was celebrated from the 17th to the 21st of December. Later the tradition of decorating branches and trees was carried forward and became a noted part of the Christmas season
In Egypt Copts make special sweet biscuits for the Nativity, decorated with a cross. The Egyptian Coptic Church makes a special bread called Qurban. It is made in large quantities for big festivals and decorated with a cross in the middle surrounded by 12 dots to represent the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. It’s given to those inside and outside of the church.
After church services, families go home to break their fast. This meal is called fatta and usually consists of meat and rice served with pita bread. Breaded mint-flavored veal cutlets called buftake, rice with pecans, pine nuts and raisins are also traditional Christmas dishes.
Traditions, A Guidebook, The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago