“Out of Egypt I called my Son.” (Hosea 11:1)
These verses are treasured by every Egyptian Christian. The Gospel of Matthew (2:13-15) tells how Hosea’s prophecy of Israel’s deliverance was fulfilled in a new way in the life of Jesus. The God who had rescued His people miraculously in the Exodus now snatched His Son from Herod’s snare when an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to flee with Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt.
So how have the close proximity of Jesus’ birth and the historic stay of Jesus as a baby in Egypt impacted the way Egyptians celebrate His birth?
The historic Coptic Church, which celebrates Christmas on 7 January, has for centuries preserved Christmas as a special celebration preceded by a 43-day Advent fast. It is said that the 40 days resemble the 40 days Moses spent on the mountain to receive the Word of God. Similarly, Coptic Christians fast to prepare themselves to receive the Word who became flesh, Jesus Christ. The remaining three days commemorate a tenth century event when the Mokattam Mountain in Cairo is believed to have moved three times due to the prayers of the Church, proving the truth of Christianity to the Fatimid Cailiph Al Mu’izz Ledeenallah Al Fatemy.
Following the 43-day fast, Coptic Christians attend a special Christmas Eve Mass on the evening of 6 January in Coptic churches throughout the country. This ends at midnight in most churches, after which families gather for a big feast to break the fast. Christmas day on 7 January is usually spent with extended family members either at home or outdoors.
While gifts are not a big part of the Egyptian Christmas tradition, adults give children in the family a monetary gift called an “edeyya.” New clothes for all the family, especially children, are also a trademark of Christmas in Egypt.
Catholic Egyptians also observe Advent but celebrate Christmas with the Western church on 25 December.
Over the years, the Evangelical Church in Egypt has joined the Coptic Church in celebrating Christmas on 7 January. Unlike the Coptic and Catholic Churches, they do not call for an Advent fast, but do have special Christmas services either on Christmas day or Christmas Eve. Children are an important part of these and usually rehearse for weeks beforehand to be part of a children’s Christmas choir.
Although not much has changed in the ways Christians of all denominations celebrate Jesus’ birth, the cultural adoption of Christmas as a holiday has significantly increased in recent years. It used to be that only Christians bought Christmas trees, decorated their homes, and attended “Christmas Carols”. These days, however, shopping malls are adorned with Christmas trees and decorations, most toy stores offer a “Santa” to hand out toys to children, and many from different religious backgrounds enjoy going to Christmas Carols with Christian friends in schools, churches or hotels.
Also worth noting in the last decade is that 7 January was declared a national holiday. Christians are no longer alone in taking the day off of work; it has become a holiday for everyone.
My prayer is that the Church in Egypt will continue to hold firmly to the sacredness of Christmas and that it will see the cultural adoption of Christmas as an opportunity for the Church to share publicly its celebrations of the Saviour humankind so desperately needs. I hope this cultural celebration will never lead us to dilute the powerful message of Christmas as has happened in many parts of the world. We cannot remove CHRIST from CHRISTmas!
Merry Christmas. Kol sana wento tayyebeen!