The Chrismas Archives

Christmas in Egypt

© 2002 by Maria Hubert von Staufer

The Coptic Christmas follows the old calendar, and takes place on the 6th January. The Coptic Church is Catholic. It was founded by St Mark who spent much time in Egypt, and it is said that he wrote his Gospel there.

The Coptic Christian Rite is very old. Being a smaller Church, they have had little need to move so much with the times, so much of their liturgy is unchanged, and a little strange to the Western ear. The clashing of small finger cymbals throughout parts of the Holy Mass was quite strange for me the first time I heard it. They also go in for more fasts than we do in the West. Fasting is supposed to purify the body and lead the mind to spiritual things. It was more common in the Western Church several hundred years ago than now, when the only fasts we observe are those for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday in remembrance of our Lords Crucifixion.

But one touch I warmed to was that children are admitted to the Eucharist whilst still babes in arms, and it was delightful to see a young child of no more than six months, being spoon fed the consecrated bread and wine, and the priest carefully wiping the baby's mouth afterwards! Coptic priests marry, as do most of the Eastern Catholic clergy, and I enjoyed seeing them with their families at the various parish excursions. It somehow brought family life closer into the parish.

Here is an extensive account about Christmas celebration in the Coptic Church in Egypt, courtesy Romany Ayoub in Cairo who gathered and collated this material for me from Church resources.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy spirit one God Amen.

The Coptic Christmas:
In "Christmas" we participate the LORD's angels in their rejoice and praise:"glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men". {Luke 2:14}

The Christmas fast:
We have in our Coptic Orthodox Church a very special fast before the celebration of "Christmas", the so-called "the fast of Christmas" a forty three (43) days fast in reference to the following:

  1. the forty days of fast of Moses for receiving the "Ten Commandments" in the land of Sinai (Ex.: 24:18).
  2. the three days of fast in commemoration of the miracle of moving the mountain the so-called "EL MOKATTAM".
Noteworthy that, in the last thirty days of this fast we have the Coptic month "Kiahk" during which we are enjoying singing espcial hymns -"joy hymns"-of this month. The Christmas fast is a very special fast for us because, as we mentioned previously, we are enjoying the hymns of "Kiahk", the Holy Mass, and eating the vegetarian foot specially for controlling the self.

The Egyptian New Year's Eve:
We can call it also "The Self Evaluation Eve". Where we are celebrating a very special Mass, we stand in front of God to confess our sins of the last year and to take promises of living the rest of our life to serve God.At the last five minutes of the year all the lights of the church are off to enjoy the quietness of candles's light, everyone prays asking God for His Forgiveness Few minutes determine the end of a year with its happiness and sadness and the beginning of a new year …oh, God bless the beginning of the year with your goodness … Few minutes to open a new page, a new page without black spots, a new page to draw a white heart filled with love towards all people …oh, God create a pure heart in me …

The 7th of Jan. or Dec. The 25th and Why? :
Every year, according to the Coptic calendar, our Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates "Christmas" in the 29th of "Kiahk"-a Coptic month-which is simultaneous to the 7th of Jan. while all of us is wondering saying: Why the Eastern "Christmas" differs from the Western "Christmas"?

Till the year 1581 A.D the time of "Christmas" in the 29th of "Kiahk", a Coptic month, was simultaneous to the 25th of Dec. but a sudden change happened when the Pope of Rome "Christmas" in the 29th of "Kiahk" became in the 4th of Jan. then the difference began to exceed 3 days every 400 years .By the year 1800 till 1899 the difference became 12 days where "Christmas" was celebrated in the 6th of Jan. while recently the difference became 13 days from 1900 till 2099 where "Christmas" is and will be celebrated in the 7th of Jan. The following table - next page - is representing the difference in days between the Coptic- (Eastern)-Christmas & the Western Christmas chronologically:

The Coptic calendar

The Western calendar

The difference in days

The chronological order

29th of Kiahk

4th of Jan.

10 days

From the 15th of Oct. 1582A.D. to the end of 1600 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

4th of Jan.

10 days

From the 1st of March 1600 A.D. to the end of Feb.1700 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

5th of Jan.

11 days

From the 1st  of March 1700 A.D. to the end of Feb. 1800 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

6th of Jan.

12 days

From the 1st of March 1800 A.D. to the end of  Feb. 1900 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

7th of Jan.

13 days

From the 1st of March 1900 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2000 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

7th of Jan.

13 days

From the 1st of March 2000 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2100 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

8th of Jan.

14 days

From the 1st of March 2100 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2200 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

9th of Jan.

15 days

From the 1st of March 2200 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2300 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

10th of Jan.

16 days

From the 1st of March 2300 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2400 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

10th of Jan.

16 days

From the 1st of March 2400 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2500 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

11th of Jan.

17 days

From the 1st of March 2500 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2600 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

12th of Jan.

18 days

From the 1st of March 2600 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2700 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

13th of Jan.

19 days

From the 1st of March 2700 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2800 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

13th of Jan.

19 days

From the 1st of March 2800 A.D. to the end of Feb. 2900 A.D.

29th of Kiahk

14th of Jan.

20  days

From the 1st of March 2900 A.D. to the end of Feb. 3000 A.D.





The origin of the word Christmas:
And the angel said unto them, fear not: for, behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, Which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11-12)

According to the recent researches, it is proved that the word "Christmas" is of an ancient Egyptian origin. Where this word is consisting of two parts: Christ & mas; Christ is the Lord, but what is mas?

Mas is an ancient Egyptian word means: to be born or Birth. The word is drawn in the Hieroglyphic language -the ancient Egyptian language-as follows:

Symbol for Christmas

The name of the ancient Egyptian king "Thothmas" means: the Birth of Thoth -god of wisdom. Therefore, mas means Birth. Hence, "Christmas" means the Birth of -Our Lord Jesus-Christ.

I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year

Months of the Coptic Calendar
Of all survivals from pharaonic Egypt, the calendar is the most striking. Each of the twelve months of the Coptic calendar still carries the name of one of the deities or feasts of ancient Egypt. No doubt, this reflects the conservatism that characterizes the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, who are reluctant to set aside their traditional way of life.

The year was divided into three seasons of equal length, each comprising four months. Documents from around the fifth century B.C. indicates that the great festivals held in honor of certain divinities gave their names to the month in which that particular celebration occurred.

The twelve months and the origins of their names are as follow:

  1. Tut (September 11-12 to October 9-10). The frist month of the Coptic year was dedicated to Thoth, god of wisdom and science, inventor of writing, patron of scribes, and "he who designates the seasons, months and years".
  2. Babah (October 11-12 to November 9-10). During the second month was celebrated the " beautiful feast of Opet," whose name Paopi signifies "that of Opet". The "colonnade of the temple of Luxor, decorated by pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon, depicts the unfolding of this great festival in all its diversity .We see Amon-Ra traveling from Karnak to Luxor to celebrate the famous festival of Opet, from which the month Babah derives its name."
  3. Hatur (November 10-11 to December 9-10). This month commemorated Hathor, a very ancient goddess, the "Cow of heaven," who gave birth to the sun and to all beings, gods and men. As the living soul of plants and trees, nurse to the rulers of Egypt.
  4. Kiyahk (December 10-11 to January 8-9). This month derives its name from a ritual vase that was probably used for measuring incense and was very important in the funeral feast originally known as the Unoin of the Ka . During this month, the great Osirian festivals were held. In addition, as we mentioned previuosly until now, here in Egypt we celebrate "Christmas" in the 29th of this month annually.
  5. Tubah (January 9-10 to February 7-8). During this month a great festival known as the swelling of the Barley was celebrated which dates from the beginning of the New Kingdom, the month was originally called Botti (Barely), but by metathesis became Tobi.
  6. Amshir (February 8-9 to March 9) This is one of two months (Distinguished from each other as the "large" and the "small") related to fire. This is the month of the "large fire" because it is the coldest time of year.
  7. Baramhat (March 10-11 to April 8) this month was consecrated to a festival; but after the death of Amenhotep IV, frist king of the Eighteenth Dynasty; he became the object of the divine patrons of the Theban necropolis. Around the Twentieth Dynasty, this cult became so popular that his name replaced that of the early festival.
  8. Baramudah (April 9 to May 8). This month was dedicated to Ermonthis, goddess of the harvest, represented as having a serpent's head and sometimes as nursing her son Kapri, the god of grain.
  9. Bashans (May 9 to June 7). This month took its name from the ancient festival of Khonsou, a lunar god who in very early times was integrated into the Theban theology as the son of Amon and Mut. With many qualities attributed to him, he is described as Khonsou the Magnanimous, his foremost Theban name.
  10. Ba'unah (June 8 to July 7). In ancient times, "the Beautiful Festival of the valley " was celebrated during this month. Held in the Valley of the kings and lasting ten days, it was no doubt the most important celebration in the life of the Egyptian people. As the annual commemoration of the dead, it included "sacrifice, the visit to the tomb, the presentation of a consecrated bouquet.
  11. Abib (July 8 to August 6). This month was consecrated in ancient Egypt to 'Ipy, goddess of fecundity, who assumed the form of a hippo. The origin of this name is obscure. Alabaster container, meant to hold the water for the libation poured on the ground as an offering to this goddess, also bear the name of this festival.
  12. Misra (August 7 to September 5). The last month of the year celebrated the birth of the sun god Ra. It is clear that the name of the month explains and emphasizes the fact of the meaning of the word "Mis or mas"-Birth-where the month used to celebrate the birth of god Ra. Therefore, "MAS" means, "birth" and hence "Christmas" means The Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, days, called the "delayed days" (Arabic, ayyam al-nasi) or the "little month" (Arabic, al-shar al-saghir), are five extra days that follow the month of Misra (6 during leap year). The frist of these days was reserved by the ancient Egyptian for the festival honoring their most celebrated god, Osiris. Certain other great ceremonies also took place at this time of the year.

The Pre-Christmas Week
After celebrating the mass of the New Year eve, all of women are preparing themselves to start making the so-called "kahk el 'aid: bakes of biscuits, cakes, and pancakes. Funny is that they make it without tasting it, because by this time all of us is still fasting-only vegetarian food that we are allowed to eat- so children are lucky enough to do the job on behalf of us, and you are kindly invited to taste it as well!

After few days,"Kahk el 'aid" is ready and women are not busy now so it's high time to go shopping where all able families are buying new clothes, while unable families are given the same whether by churches or by voluntary communities.

The rest of the week is spent in cleaning up houses and decorating them by buying some decorative objects like the Christmas tree, and figures of "Saint Clothe"-"Baba Newell" in Arabic! Post cards are sent to everybody in everywhere, and on Christmas day some post card are given by hand to children by 'the Sunday school" deacons.

Now everybody is ready for the Christmas Eve for celebrating the Christmas mass. Merry Christmas! The Aspects of the Coptic Christmas Celebration:

The eve of Christmas-the 28th /29th of 'Kiahk'- is distinguished with a very special Holy Mass which is celebrated usually for this occasion. Mass from 9:00 P.M. till 12:00 A.M. in all dioceses and from 9:00 P.M. till 4:00 A.M. only in the main cathedral of Cairo where our Pope Shenoda III -No.117 after saint Mark-is celebrating the Divine Mass himself.

All the churches are decorated with coloured lamps, miniatures of the manger of our Lord_ models of angels, the magi (the three wise men), Joseph, and our lady Virgin Mary…etc_ and sometimes statues of saint Clothe: " Baba Newail" in the Arabic language.

All the Egyptian families are so interested in attending the Mass of "Christmas", everybody wearing new clothes is happy for this great occasion. Everybody wishes a peaceful life in the New Year for himself, for his family, and for everybody all over the world.

Merry Christmas
Good morning, merry Christmas! By this, we are starting our day of Christmas and after having our breakfast of biscuits, cake, pancake "Kahk el 'aid", and maybe with a cup of milk.

Everybody, is getting ready to go outdoor, but before leaving it is a custom to give children the so-called "El 'aidia"-the feast gift: a small sum of money to buy sweets, toys, and ice cream or to drink sugar cane juice! …Etc.

It is given usually from the elders (parents, uncles, or aunts) to the children of a family. In the streets, you can hear the bang of fireworks; children are gathered now wearing their new beautiful clothes playing with their toys and fireworks. Some other of them stands holding balloons or running after each other.

Some other groups of them are fond of spending their time in public gardens to enjoy playing football, volleyball, or on the swings.

Christmas is a great occasion in our life, a good chance to renovate our family relation, where families are visiting each other.

Sometimes a day of double occasion where some families are celebrating their "wedding ceremonies" to rejoice twice.

Nile picnics are playing a very important role in the day's fun, families after a long time of work through the whole year are eager to have fun and rest.

Today, and after 43 days of fast, we can eat whatever we need, big quantities of meat, chicken, vegetables, fruits, ice cream, and many kinds of non-alcoholic drinks are used. Actually, it is a very bad habit! Moreover, the result is that "diarrhea"; thus, big quantities of gastric medicine are sold. What a lucky pharmacy! ???

Long and tiring day, but everybody is happy, praising God for his Goodness, asking God for peace …Yes, we need peace!