Tis' the season: Egypt's Coptic Christians mark Christmas festivities with joyful celebration

Egypt's Coptic Church marks Christmas celebrations
4 min read
06 January, 2023
This weekend, Egypt's Coptic Christian community marks Christmas with customary traditions and festivities. One of the world's oldest Christian communities, the Church remains resolute despite enduring seismic shifts over the past millennia.

Whilst Catholic and Protestant denominations celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December, Egypt's Coptic Christians instead celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ two weeks later on the 7th of January. 

Coptic Christians are one of the world's oldest Christian communities and share the festive period with the orthodox churches of Russia, Ethiopia, Serbia and Ukraine. The reason behind this is not theological, but rather to do with the different calendars used. 

Whilst Western churches now follow the Gregorian calendar, Orthodox churches continue to use the older Julian calendar.

"Although the percentage of Christians in Egypt has never been officially released, it is believed they make up almost 10 to 15 per cent of the 104 million population, with most following the Orthodox denomination"

"Despite the actual date of birth of the Messiah remaining unknown, churches around the world agreed to celebrate his birth on the 25th December, which is 29 Kiahk in the Coptic calendar," Christian theologian Rafik Gerges told The New Arab

"The date of the 25th of December and the 29 Kiakh used to be parallel, however, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar changed this alignment," Rafik added. 

“Although the Gregorian calendar was adopted by Khedive Ismail in 1875, the Coptic Orthodox Church has continued to use the older calendar, with 29 Kiahk continuing to be kept,” Gerges explained.   

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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But it's not just the date that Coptic Christmas celebrate differently but rather in a number of different traditions too.

On January 7 every year, the Christmas Mass begins around 8 pm and ends at midnight. Afterwards, worshipers go home and eat special meals containing different types of meat after a long fasting time.

“Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas with food in a way that echoes the two Muslim feasts, Eid Al-Fitr, famous for ‘kahk’ (cookies), and Eid Al-Adha, known for ‘fattah’ with meat. These rituals are believed to date thousands of years ago, before the advent of Islam,” Emad Sabry, a Coptic teacher, told The New Arab.

“43 days prior to Christmas day, devout Copts fast from sunrise to sunrise. When they break their fast, they refrain from eating animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc.). It’s a holy nativity fast intended to show piety and self-control,” Emad explained.  

A man poses for a photo holding miniature Christmas trees along a main street in the northern suburb of Shubra (home to a large Christian population) of Egypt's capital Cairo
A man holds a miniature Christmas tree along a main street in Cairo's suburb of Shubra, which is home to a large Christian community [Getty Images]

Other traditions observed at Christmas by Egypt's Coptic community include buying new clothes and family visits. Some families decorate Christmas trees at their homes and exchange gifts, traditions adopted from the west and taken in by Egyptians.    

Although the percentage of Christians in Egypt has never been officially released, it is believed they make up almost 10 to 15 per cent of the 104 million population, with most following the Orthodox denomination.

Rich history

The word Copt is derived from the Greek word Aigyptos, meaning “Egyptian.” The modern use of the word describes “a Christian Egyptian.”

Saint Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt, establishing a church in the first century in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero which would later become a stronghold of Christianity over the coming centuries.

Egyptian Coptic Christians have been persecuted by almost all rulers of Egypt throughout history. Copts take pride in the persecution they have endured as early as 8 May, 68 AD when their Patron Saint Mark was slain on Easter Monday after being dragged from his feet by Roman soldiers across the streets of Alexandria. The incident was followed by similar ones, such as the suppression of clergymen and Egyptian people of the Christian faith over history.

Copts used to follow the Calendar of the Martyrs starting on 29 August, 284 AD in commemoration of those who were martyred for the sake of their faith during the rule of the Roman Empire.

Despite persecution, the Orthodox Church has remained independent, maintaining separation between state politics and religion.

The Coptic Orthodox Church's clergy is headed by the Pope of Alexandria who oversees the priests ordained in their dioceses.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital