While Christmas is celebrated worldwide by most Christians on the 25th of December, Egypt's Coptic Christians abide by a Julian calendar which sets the holiday's date for the 7th of January, during the Coptic month of Kiahk. In his first Christmas speech last year, the newly ordained Pope Tawadros II, commented that Coptics should view December 25th and January 7th as part of one continuous celebration rather than two separate Christmases.
This statement was well- received by Egypt’s Christian community as an unprecedented interpretation that aims to narrow the gaps between Eastern and the Western churches across the globe as well as the various sects of Egypt's Christians: Coptic Orthodox, and Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Catholics, Maronites, Evangelicals, the Presbyterian, the Episcopal, etc…
Although the purpose of all these sects Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus is the same, rituals manifest themselves differently across different segments on the 24th and 25th of December and 6th and 7th of January.
In both cases the celebrations start on the holiday's eve with a midnight mass celebrated by the congregation followed by a family gathering and dinner exchange of presents left under the Christmas tree. Christmas day’s lunch gathering is an equally sacred event for close family members. One noticeable difference is that Copts celebrate Christmas after 43 days of vegetarian fasting, with the exception of fish which is not prohibited, that typically starts on the 25th of November.
Accordingly, on feast days turkey and/or meat are essential as well as the fattah dish, a lamb soup which contains bread, rice, garlic and boiled lamb meat, with the same menu making a reappearance on Christmas day. One of the essential culinary components of the Coptic Christmas is the 'kahk' cookies which may serve as dessert or be offered to guests during celebratory and greeting visits.
Traditionally, kahk was baked at home but this ritual is gradually vanished due to life's increasingly fast pace and the scarcity of properly-equipped home ovens. Kahk is now purchased from specialised bakeries and patisseries who also provide kahk during celebrations for the Muslim feast which marks the end of Ramadan.
But since Coptic Christmas celebrations are a private family occasion, it’s traditions were scarcely mentioned in nineteenth century publications like Description de l'Egypte and Lane Poole's Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians. Thus, the chances of finding professional photographs or even illustrations that mark the occasion are reduced to the minimum.
With difficulty, some black and white photographs can occasionally be located. They include photos from the sixties that trace several consecutive Christmases of an originally upper Egyptian family from Assiut, whose members gradually drifted to Cairo and settled in the capital. The oldest of the pictures shows an entire family gathered in the central hall of their home.
(1. Family 1 3 Assiout Dec ab'62).
At that time, the two elder siblings were are already accompanied by their spouses, the oldest of whom had fathered three sons. The next consecutive photo taken a year later unveils what may be the family's first Christmas in Cairo after moving from Assiut. The third sibling, who had already settled in Cairo, had just married his cousin a few months earlier. For his first Christmas with his wife, they helda Christmas party in their new Cairene apartment where they hosted the extended family. This was an aberration from tradition, with the holiday being celebrated off the patriarchal premises in Assiut for the first time.
In the meantime, the progression of photos shows the third generation of offspring's growth, with an additional child joining the photo every one to two years.
But in the late sixties, this pattern was broken. The family's oldest daughter emigrated to California, along with many other Coptic families in the late sixties and early seventies. Christmas for this family was thus never the same. Today, almost half a century later, those immigrants have taken on the Western Christmas while still maintaining their Coptic traditions to gather with close family and friends every 6th and 7th of January.
Coptic Christmas and the new year are not the only holidays that come with January. As Copt's celebrate Christmas eve on the 6th of January, Armenians celebrate their own Christmas on that same day. It is also the same day as the Western Epiphany. Two weeks later, on the 19th of January, Copts celebrate their own Orthodox Epiphany, taking down their Christmas trees while enjoying a typicall qulqass (colocasia) meal that may be accompanied by sugarcane for upper Egyptians.
Photos courtesy of Ola.R.Seif