People in Egypt celebrated the Christmas holiday season and the new year with fireworks, Christmas trees and visits to bring cheer to orphanages and hospitals. Supermarkets have been jammed with all kinds of food and holiday ornaments, and schools have celebrated by holding musical concerts that echo those at the country’s theatres and opera houses.
Coptic Christians in Egypt, who make up some 10 per cent of the population, celebrated Christmas differently this year, with many marking the deaths of those killed a decade ago in a terrorist attack in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. However, they also did their utmost to spread good wishes for a new year and a new decade and to teach their children how best to celebrate the feast.
The last decade witnessed the rise of terrorist groups in many parts of the world, including Egypt, and these even targeted Christians and Muslims inside churches and mosques. On 31 December 2010, a car bombing claimed the lives of 21 worshippers inside a church in Alexandria.
Though it has been a decade since the attack took place, “it was the first of its kind to claim the lives of Christians during worship,” said Rasha Raouf, a lecturer at the College of Language and Communication in Alexandria who witnessed the attack. “These incidents make us stronger and more ardent believers,” she added.
“I remember well how five days later thousands of worshippers came to our church wearing black to show their solidarity. I remember how our Muslim neighbours joined hands to protect us during prayers,” she said.
She said that for the end-of-year celebrations she had organised a peaceful feast with her family, before which she had baked traditional kahk biscuits. “I am raising my daughter to understand the eid rituals, to bake with me, to visit church, and to be happy with simple gifts,” Rasha said.
On Coptic Orthodox Christmas Day, people always come together to celebrate. They break their fasts with huge meals, and many Muslim people in Egypt also like to join them in celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday and a prelude to the new year. It has become a way of connecting people together and a flourishing market for selling Christmas trees, food and decorations.
Mariam Fouad, an Alexandria resident, remembered that “ten years ago, we were invited to say our prayers to welcome in the new year. We suddenly heard a loud boom, and the church shook. All I can remember is running down the street in fear.” Asked about her feelings ten years later, she said that “I wish people could become happier. Many people have become sad and disappointed, but they should try to put these feelings aside,” she said.
In many Alexandria churches, Papa Noel (Father Christmas) could be seen distributing gifts this year, with children running up to him and taking photos. “I am celebrating Christmas this year by looking back over the past year and wishing the best for everyone,” said Hoda George, a grandmother in Alexandria.
Hoda tries to share the feast with the poor as well. “We are happy and can go shopping and wear new clothes. I try to do the same for others. I am keen to buy new clothes and food for those in need,” she said.
She added that the Christmas tree she decorated this year was a gift from a Muslim woman called Sahar who used to work at a hospital where she is a consultant. “Sahar bought the Christmas tree herself and presented it to me as the most precious gift ever,” she said.
Hoda and her family take part in different church activities, though their thoughts are often also with the many families whose sons and grandsons live abroad.
“I am happy that this year my son will be able to celebrate Christmas on 25 December and 7 January in the US. The US Coptic Orthodox Church will hold celebrations on both dates so that everyone can celebrate the feast,” she said.
Marline Iskander, who has been living in the US for more than 20 years, said that she longed for Christmas in Egypt. “Our church is an hour and a half away, so it’s difficult to go on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. My sons are older and work in different cities, so they can’t come to celebrate together either,” she lamented.
However, this does not mean she did not celebrate Christmas. “When we break the fast, it’s with molokhiya, kofta, stuffed grape leaves, chicken and turkey,” she added, referencing traditional Egyptian dishes.
St Mark Cathedral
St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria is one of the oldest churches in the Middle East, dating back to 60 CE when St Mark came to the city and converted many to Christianity. It is the seat of the Pope of Alexandria, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“This year, we held a celebration for Pope Tawadros II to celebrate 150 years of the church establishment. I was happy to see many people enjoying and praying together,” noted Father Tharwat Shenouda, a Coptic Orthodox priest at St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria.
Though many children were keen to attend the prayers, he was concerned that the new technologies may be leading to generations being ignorant about their religion. “I can see the difference among the generations. Ten years ago, children were happy to come and were enthusiastic about participating in the activities, but nowadays some are different,” he said.
“We try to engage them in all sorts of activities, not only religious ones, but also artistic and cultural ones as well. We have a theatre, a choir and a library where they can cultivate themselves,” Father Shenouda added.
Regarding the security measures to protect the churches, he said that Egypt’s security officers had worked hard to prevent any attacks. “Above all, we hope that the new year will bring peace and prosperity to the whole of society,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly