For most of us in the U.S., Christmas is the best day of the year. We get to decorate our houses, spend the day with our families, eat lots of food, and give/get lots of presents. Well in Egypt Christmas is celebrated twice. So I got two days full of joy and cheer.
Here is some background information. The minority religion in Egypt is Christianity. And many of the Christians are Coptic Orthodox and follow the Coptic Liturgical Calendar. This calendar dates back to the Ancient Egyptians; therefore, they do not celebrate holidays on the same days as we do. January 7th is Christmas, and the Egyptian government has declared January 7th to be a national holiday. Because Christmas all around the world is celebrated on December 25th, many of the Christians in Egypt celebrate on both days.
Just as around the world Christmas has become very secularized, Egypt is no exception. On December the 25th, you will find people all around Egypt, no matter what their religion, decorating their houses, having Christmas parties, and exchanging gifts. The malls are decorated with Christmas music playing throughout the stores. You will find that all the way through January 7th, people will be joining in the festivities.
Each family has different traditions that they take part in. Most of the time the family spends the day together and eats a big feast together. I will tell you a little bit about how my experience was for both December 25th and January 7th.
On December 25th in my family and most others, Santa comes to town. Just like the kids anywhere else in the world, my cousins woke up early, ran into my room, and woke me up because Santa had left presents under the tree. After present are opened, I gathered at different family members’ houses for lunch or dinner or even just snacks. It is honestly not too much different from Christmas in the U.S. The only real difference is the size of family get-togethers. You can expect to have at least 30 people at a family gathering at times.
Coptic Christmas is a bit different than what most people are used to. 40 days before January 7th, there is a fast that the Coptic Orthodox Christians take part in. During this time (and all other fasting periods during the year), people fast from all dairy and meat products. Essentially, we go vegan. On January 6th, everyone gets dressed up into pretty dresses and suites and goes to an evening mass at church. We fast from all food and water for 9 hours prior to midnight, in order to partake in Communion, which is considered to be a Holy Sacrament by the church. After church is finished, there is a big feast with every good amazing food you can ever think of on the table. And after being vegan for such a long time, the food has never tasted better. Now keep in mind that none of the eating happens till about 12:30 am. We stay up all night eating, laughing, and celebrating.
On the 7th, there is another big family get together with all extended family and family friends, no what their religion. There is even more food than there was the night before. It is a time to see all the family together once again. Everyone eats and catches up. Many people wonder the kids get double presents, and actually the answer is no. Normally, presents are given around December 25th, and money is given on January 7th.
This year on Coptic Christmas history was made. For the very first time, an Egyptian President attended the Christmas service at the cathedral where the Pope leads the service. It is common for famous actors and actresses to make an appearance at the service as a form of respect and acknowledgment. Never before as any of the former presidents come and acknowledged the importance of that day and that service. This year El-Sisi went to the cathedral in what seemed to be an unexpected visit. Pope Tawadros II stopped the service and met El-Sisi on the steps leading up to the alter. El-Sisi made a short speech that was televised, saying that he wants to see all Egyptians unite as one with no divisions between Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians. It was a very momentous moment for religion in Egypt, especially for the Copts.
Here in the States I am fortunate to take part in most of these traditions through my own church. What made this time so different was thinking about and being part of “the real thing,” I guess is the best way to say it. We also heard about how full the church is for the Christmas service and how great the food is and how big the family gatherings are. And no matter how hard we would try to do the same types of thing in the US, my mom would say it’s just not the same. I had the chance to see where all my traditions came from. It was a very great experience.
I will be posting one last blog to rap up my experience in Egypt. I want to thank all those who have been reading this blog and giving me the opportunity to share this great experience!