Merry Christmas, everybody!
I know, I know, Christmas was 25 December . . . but not if you happen to be a Coptic Christian, as most Christians in Egypt are. The Coptic church was founded here in Egypt by Saint Mark on his missionary journeys. And, like the Muslims have an Islamic calendar, Copts have a Coptic calendar. On this calendar, Christmas is the 29th day of Khiahk. Up until 1582, the 29th day of Khiahk corresponded to the 25th day of December, when Westerners celebrate Christmas. However, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was introduced or changed or something--I haven't done all that much research into this--and the two fell out of alignment by 10 days. Since then, every four years when we have a leap year, the 29th day of Khiahk gets one day later with respect to the Gregorian calendar. So for now, at least, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7 January.
Christmas is much more religious, and less commercial, here than it is in the United States or most of the rest of the western world. It's preceded by a 43-day fast, during which Christians aren't supposed to eat meat products. (It's a fast more in the tradition of Catholics, who fast by avoiding certain foods, than in the tradition of Muslims, for whom fasting means that you eat nothing at all during daylight hours.) Forty of those days are in remembrance of the 40 days when Moses fasted while receiving the 10 Commandments, and the remaining three days are in remembrance of the three days of fasting that preceded the miraculous moving of the Mokattum mountain. Apparently, most Copts don't fast for the full 43 days, only for the last week--beginning after the New Year. On Coptic Christmas Eve (I don't know if they call it that), there's a late-night church service that goes until midnight or later. The most prominent mass is in Saint Mark Cathedral in Cairo. Mass ends with the ringing of bells after the congregants receive a special bread, the Qurban bread, which is decorated with a cross surrounded by 12 dots, to represent the 12 apostles. After mass, Copts go home and break their fast together as a family. They give new clothes and toys to the children--most of the gifts having been purchased at charity bazaars rather than in regular shops. Christmas Day is spent visiting friends and neighbors.
Since 2003, I think, Coptic Christmas has been a national holiday here in Egypt. Before that, it was a religious holiday only; Copts were entitled to the day off, but everyone else had to work as usual. In 2003, President Mubarak declared it a national holiday for everyone. This is partly because the Nativity is a big deal to all Egyptians, as it was shortly after that that the Holy Family fled here to escape Herod. Even Muslims recognize that Jesus was a prophet, although they don't recognize His divinity, so they have no problem celebrating His birth. In any case, it now is a national holiday . . . so Jeff gets another day off work. (I know, I had said that he'd have to work a full 5-day week this week, but I had forgotten that Christmas isn't quite over here.)
Jeff and I have no plans to join in any of the Coptic celebrations. If we had Coptic friends, I'd be tempted to tag along, but I don't really know any Copts other than as the owners of a business I frequent--it isn't exactly a personal relationship. I have to admit that I'm tempted to go to one of the masses--there's a Coptic church not too far from here--but I know myself well enough to know that it would be a bad idea. I'd think it was beautiful for the first half hour or so, and then, with me not understanding the language, my attention would start to drift . . . and then I'd start to fall asleep . . . that would be incredibly rude and embarrassing, not to mention possibly distracting for the people who did understand what was going on. No, I'll just stay home. Maybe I'll hear the bells ringing. If I'm still awake at midnight, I'll open the door and see if I hear them.
(Okay, any of you who noticed that I just talked about the Christmas mass and the bells in the future, even though this blog entry didn't post until the next day--you caught me, I wrote this post on the 6th but set it to post automatically on the 7th, so it would post on Coptic Christmas while still allowing me to write it early so I could spend the day with Jeff.)
In the interests of full disclosure, I'd like to admit that I obtained my information about Coptic Christmas from the following websites. I have no clue whether or not any of it's true, but they all said mostly the same things, so I'm going with them on this one!
World of Christmas
Viator Travel Blog