Christmas in Egypt
by Nermin Sami and Jimmy Dunn
Because of the time the Holy Family spent in Egypt with the infant Jesus, Christmas is a very special celebration in Egypt. In Egypt, Copts, who are Egypt's traditional Christians, have their own Pope who is the head of the Coptic churches of Egypt and the Sudan. Copts consider St. Mark to be their first Pope. He introduced Christianity to Egypt, and for hundreds of years, Alexandria was the home of the Pope. Today his cathedral is in Cairo, where services are usually held in the ancient Coptic language.
A surprising number of Egyptian traditions have survived from ancient Pharonic Egypt, and perhaps one of the most striking is the Coptic calendar. Each of the names of the twelve months in the Coptic calendar retains a vestige of an ancient deity or feast, no doubt reflecting the conservative nature of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley.
Egyptian Orthodox Christians (or Coptic Christians) celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7th, a date equivalent to the 29th day of the Coptic month of "kiohk, or Khiahk", though this date in relation to the western calendar advances over long periods of time. Of course, in many other countries Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, though celebrating Christmas on this date is not unique to the Copts. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church also celebrates Christmas on January 7th. The difference in the dates comes from the difference between the Coptic and Gregorian calendars. This means, for example, that beginning March 1st of 2100 AD, the Coptic Christmas will be celebrated on the 8th day of January in relation to the Western calendar.
In 2004, muchof our Tour Egypt staff just happened to be in Egypt during the month of December. We all enjoyed the festive atmosphere that prevails around this time of year, even though Egypt is mostly an Islamic country. We found specialized Christmas stores along 26th of July Street in Zamalek, with belly dancing Santas in the windows, and all over the streets of Cairo were vendors selling Santa hats with blinking lights. Throughout Egypt, Christmas lights and other displays were everywhere. It was fun, as we posed behind a Santa riding a camel in Sharm el-Sheikh.
All Coptic feasts come after a period of fasting. A Coptic fast does not means going completely without food for a part of the day. They may eat normally, but the type of food that is consumed is limited to non-animal products. Therefore, meat, fish, eggs and milk are forbidden The fast leading up to Christmas is called "lent fasting", and traditionally lasts for 43 days, celebrating the forty days of fast Moses endured while receiving the Ten Commandments and the three days of fast associated with the miracle of moving the mountain of El Mokattam, a purely Egyptian event.
This fast lasts from November 25th until January 6th (Advent), though the majority of people only fast for the last week when, after the mass of the New Year, Christmas celebrations begin in earnest. This is, of course, a time of great celebration, particularly during the last 30 days which make up the Coptic month of Khiahk, when special holiday season choirs present concerts of Christmas carols with a mixed program of international and Coptic music.
Much of the Christmas celebration actually begins in the last week leading up to Christmas. This is when much of the cooking takes place, and like in the west, homes are decorated with lights and Christmas trees.
Some Christmas trees are real, but many are artificial. One will even find Christmas trees in Coptic operated businesses. Christmas cards are also sent out.
Christmas in Egypt is not nearly as commercial as it is in the west, and indeed, there seems to be a specific effort to make it less commercial. Stores are not nearly as crowded as one might expect. In fact, many gifts are purchased at special Christmas bazaars that support local charities. Other bazaars are more commercial, but still some of their profits usually go to charity.
Nowadays, the Coptic Nativity is celebrated by a special midnight service in the church, followed by the ringing of the church's bells. Some Coptic Christians travel to various churches that are traditionally considered to be situated on the route of the Holy Family as they traveled through Egypt, but the largest service is held by the Coptic Pope in Saint Mark's cathedral in Cairo. This service, usually conducted by the Pope at the 11:00 PM service, is even broadcast on Egyptian TV. However, some services may last from about 9:00 PM until as late as 4:00 AM. Most of the churches are decorated with colored lamps, mangers and angels. Most of the faithful attend church in their newest clothes, and it is a very wonderful experience.
Copts also make special sweet biscuits for the Nativity that are decorated with a cross. In fact, it's the same "kahk" that Muslims make for Eid el fitr. Whether Egyptians are Muslims or Christians, their way in celebration is the same.
In the Egyptian Coptic church, a special bread called "Qurban" is given to people during the service in the church and it is also available outside the church after the service. It is made in very large quantities for the big festivals. Qurban bread is decorated with a cross in the middle, surrounded by twelve dots. Of course, those dots represent the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ.
After the service, families go home to break their fast and children receive new clothes and gifts. The meal is called fatta, and usually consists of meat and rice.On Christmas morning people visit friends and neighbors. Children are given El 'aidia, a feast gift consisting of a small sum of money to buy sweets, toys and ice cream.
The Nativity (Christmas) in Past
Nothing has changed since Islam came to Egypt in 642. Coptics had, and continue to have, the freedom to practice their religion, including feasts. Even the Fatimid caliphs (who had several Coptic & Jewish palace officials) often encouraged non-Muslim festivals. In fact, the Nativity became one of the main festivals celebrated by both Christians and Muslims. The caliph once distributed special trays of food to princes and officials, especially including dishes of "bouri" (mullet fish) and "Zalabya" (doughnuts).
During the Nativity, churches have always been decorated with special candles and lamps. Copts also gave candles and lamps as gifts to their families, neighbors and friends, as well as to the poor. It is believed that the candles are in memory of Joseph the Carpenter, who lit lamps to protect Mary (The Virgin) from the cold on the night of the Nativity. For many centuries the Nativity was celebrated by performances in the streets and by fire-shows. In the Mamluk times, lamps decorated the streets and candles were everywhere.
Christmas in Egypt is not limited to the Copts. Certainly there are, though limited, a number of other Christian sects in Egypt, some of whom celebrate Christmas on the same day as in the west. However, westerners themselves have a long tradition of spending Christmas in Egypt, and more than a few hotels and other facilities cater to western style Christmas affairs.This all started back in the grand old days of Egyptian travel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many wealthy Europeans would winter in Egypt. Then, wonderful establishments such as the Mena House would "dress" for Christmas, when the whole ground floor was turned into a winter scene with artificial snow and frosted trees and plants. Log fires would burn merrily in the many fireplaces, while elegantly dressed women, their escorts in full evening dress or splendid uniforms, would continue to arrive until late in the evening.
However, today, many Muslims in Egypt even get into the Christmas spirit. Though they may not celebrate Christmas as directly, it is not unusual for Muslims to participate in some of the celebrations, just as Christians in Egypt sometimes celebrate Muslim holidays. This is really one of the more interesting aspects of Egyptian life, where there is often a surprising amount of interfaith coexistence.
Today, the Christmas season remains a high season in Egypt, a difficult time to find a room at many of the finer hotels, and between the westerners and the Copts, one can enjoy a rather extended "Christmas season".
The birthplace of the Christmas Tree is Egypt, and its origin dates from a period long antecedent to the Christian era. The palm-tree is known to put forth a shoot every month and a spray of this tree with twelve shoots on it was used in Egypt at 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 were celebrated from the 17th to the 21st of December, the period of the winter solstice. Later, this tradition was carried forward for the Christmas season.
An Egyptian Christmas Recipe: Christmas Lebkuchen
- 2 eggs
- 225g almonds
- 10g cinnamon
- 2 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 4 egg yolks
- 225g dried peel (thinly sliced)
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 450 sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
- 175g butter
- 700g flour
1. Melt butter over low heat. 2. Stir in sugar, spices, chopped almonds and well beaten eggs. Add flour and baking powder. 3. Roll dough out thinly and cut into shapes. Place half an almond in the center of each biscuit, and brush the top of each biscuit with the white of an egg. 4. Bake at 180 degrees Celsius until brown
Festivals of Egypt by Jailan Abbas
Some information from personal experience.
Last Updated: June 14th, 2011