By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
Egyptian Copts are eager to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s this year but at the same time acknowledge the need for increased security.
“Christmas celebrations are a necessity that will not be stamped out by any circumstances or events,” said Father Paul Nathir of the Church of St. Anthony in Cairo’s Shubra district.
He told Al-Shorfa, however, that Copts are planning on making this year’s New Year’s and Christmas celebrations low-key affairs.
“Copts have unpleasant memories of previous New Year’s and Christmas Eves,” he said, recalling the killings in Nag Hammadi on Christmas Eve in 2009 and the bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve last year that left dozens of Christians killed and wounded.
“Many areas have begun forming popular committees to secure the masses held during the holidays in collaboration between young Christians and young Muslim members of political groups and independents,” he said.
Mena Mitri, a senior in Cairo University’s Department of Languages, said celebrating Christmas is “essential and semi-obligatory, no matter the circumstances”.
Mitri said Christmas festivities in Egypt continue from mid-December through mid-January. Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday on January 7th while the Catholic community celebrates it on December 25th.
“The Copts begin decorating their Christmas trees one day after fasting is concluded, or two days before Christmas Day. Women bake cakes and biscuits, most of which are distributed to neighbours, both Christians and Muslims, and some hang curtains and lay out rugs,” Mitri said.
“In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, everyone goes to church to participate in the mass,” Mitri said. “After exchanging holiday greetings, everyone heads home to start preparing for the feast, which usually takes place in the home of a senior family member such as a grandfather or uncle.”
Turkey, fish, meat pie, fatta, fruit cake, and pumpkin pie are some of the most popular foods served on Christmas.
‘Christmas only differs from Muslim holidays in terms of religious rituals’
Fahim Abdel-Salam, who earned a doctorate in social sciences from the University of Cairo, told Al-Shorfa that the Coptic celebration of Christmas falls on the 29th of Kiahk on the Coptic calendar (January 7th) after a 40-day fast.
“Christmas was one of the grand holidays during the Mamluk period,” Abdel-Salam said. “The Sultans celebrated it and distributed gifts and food to the people, and everyone participated in ceremonies held in public places that were decorated with candles, lanterns and fireworks.”
Holiday decorations during that era consisted of tree branches and red flowers, which were supplanted in homes by Christmas trees, synthetic decorations, lights and red flowers, Abdel-Salam said.
“As for holiday customs, Christians congregate in churches for midnight mass where they sing Christmas hymns. The priest reads verses from the Bible and explains the meaning of the holiday, and church bells ring at precisely midnight,” he said. “However, in recent years, political and security incidents began to dominate the speeches, and they are now included in the holiday sermons.”
Abdel-Salam said the Copts’ observance of Christmas only differs from Muslim holidays in terms of religious rituals. “The feasts, exchange of greetings, and family visits are the same for followers of both religions, which illustrates the depth of the historic relationship between the two sides over the centuries,” he said.