Fish is served. The family gathers at their older sister's house and bares one of its last seyami
meals before they break their fast on Christmas Eve.
Tucked deep inside the market in Saft El-Labban area, Mariam Anwar and her daughters Hilana and Marina Samuel live in a small building with their relatives.
While Anwar says that every Coptic house has to have a Christmas tree decorated before the feast, even if it is a very tiny one, she says this year they have only minor decorations because of a death in the family, which makes festivities less appropriate now. But, still the photo of Virgin Mary that lies in the middle of their reception has Christmas decorations on both sides of it.
“Regardless of everything that is going on in the country in the moment, we are excited about the feast,” says Anwar. “We are very optimistic and even more excited and less worried than last year.”
Contrary to the expectations that people will be afraid to go to the churches, and in spite of the turbulence and violence in the country, many Copts agree that they are more excited about celebrations this year and will attend the mass on Christmas Eve.
Shoubra market (Photo: Lamia Hassan)
Christmas expectations in different neighborhoods
For a family that grew up in Shoubra, where there are many churches, the expectations for Christmas celebrations are different than in Saft El-Labban, where there are few.
“Although it's a new church that doesn't have security, people were not scared to go and attended the mass until it ended around 10pm,” says Anwar.
“Disregarding all the threats and violence on the streets, people are keen to go to the church and celebrate.”
Her daughter Marina Samuel says that after the mass usually people stand outside and mingle for a bit, but the priest was still worried and urged all the people to leave right away.
“They kept the decorations and festivities to the inside of the church only,” she says.
Not far away from Saft El-Labban, George Abdel Moneim, who runs a hair salon in Haram, says he had high expectations for Christmas.
“For the first time in a couple of years, I have a full-house at the salon on New Year's Eve, prior to the mass at the church, which proves my point that this year is better than last year; people are less scared,” says Abdel Moneim. “On Christmas Eve, me and my sons will open all night until we are sure that all the ladies going to the mass or to family celebrations are ready for the feast.”
At the entrance of his salon, Abdel Moneim puts a Christmas tree and lights. “I usually put balloons and decorations everywhere here before the feast, but with all the violence and people dying on the streets, it's disrespectful for them to put balloons and more decorations,” says Abdel Moneim.
On the other side of town, Mina Fayez lives in Heliopolis, but celebrates with his family in Shoubra, expects a very high turnout in Shoubra on Christmas Eve.
In Heliopolis, Sandy Samy says that unlike rumours that spread that mass was going to end early on New Year's Eve, like most of the other churches, she says at St. Mary Church in Ard El-Golf it went on until past midnight.
“The mass was very crowded and the security was very high at the entrance of the church, as well as metal detectors that were brought in for New Years and Christmas Eve, and at midnight the bells rang and people celebrated,” says Samy. “The decorations might have been small, but the mood was very festive and I am expecting a higher turnout for Christmas Eve.”
Encouraging more people to attend, Al-Wafd, Free Egyptians and the Egyptian Social Democratic parties started an initiative called 'One Nation,’ announcing that they will form neighborhood watches around churches to secure it on Christmas Eve.
(Photo: Lamia Hassan)
Shopping before the Feast
Bassem Auf, the manager of Bingo in El-Nozha El-Gedida, who supplies most of the gift shops with Christmas trees and decorations, says this year was a good year for him.
“Usually, every year owners of gift shops start taking from me smaller quantities and then wait until they sell everything before taking any new quantities,” says Auf. “But, this year, since the beginning of the season for us, which starts on November 1, gift shops have been taking anything and everything whether new or old.”
Unlike last year, Auf says he was able to sell almost everything he had in the store and took a break from New Year's Eve until January 11 to start preparing for the next occasion.
Last year, Auf imported a lot of trees and decorations from China, but was left with a lot of it in his showroom. He brought trees that range from LE10 to LE1,000, but the market last year was not so promising.
“Last year, people also were more scared to put the trees and other Christmas stuff out on the streets, and just displayed it inside their shops, but this year all the people put the trees and decorations outside their shops,” says Auf.
In Shoubra, Michael Ramez, who sells ready-made clothes, says that a lot of people started buying new clothes in preparation for Christmas Eve. “It's not very crowded now, but if you come at night you will see the market buzzing with people,” says Ramez.
On the other hand, Adel Hassan, who sells hats and all sorts of decorations, says this year the turnout is low.
“Every year, my brother, who owns this cart, used to get at least four men to help him before Christmas and the street would be closed from the amount of people shopping, but as you can see there aren't that many people here,” says Hassan.
Shoubra market (Photo: Lamia Hassan)
Changing Christmas traditions
Anwar says that Christmas Eve now is a bit different than how it was when her daughters were younger and even when she was young.
“Before, the decorations were very simple and basic, but now every church tries to be creative and come up with more modern decorations and huge Christmas trees and lights,” she says.
She also says that the churches now tend to build a huge display of the nativity scene, but varies from one church to another.
“It all depends on the church and whether it's one of the rich churches or one of the churches serving the poorer communities,” explains her daughter Hilana.
“The churches around us here in Saft El-Labban are considered poorer churches, in comparison to the churches we grew up going to in Shoubra.”
Marina says that another addition to the Christmas festivities at the church is the party they throw for children and gifts for them.
“Also, the church gives out bags like Ramadan charity bags to the families in need, as well new clothes,” she says. “All of this was not very common when me and my sister were young.”
While decorations changed over time and varies from one church to another, Anwar says the Christmas dinner remains the same.
“Christmas dinner has always been a big deal,” Anwar says. “We spend a lot of time before Christmas Eve preparing what the family will have for dinner and all the pastas and meals that we couldn't have while we were fasting.”
Late Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark Cathedral, attends the Coptic Christmas eve mass at the main cathedral in Cairo January 6, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)