In the first minutes of Friday, Coptic Orthodox Christians – who comprise 90 percent of Egypt's Christian population – broke their 43-day fast and celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ.
This year’s celebration takes place amid less strict measures due to coronavirus than last year, when attendance of Christmas mass was limited to a number of bishops and monks.
“Last year, we were upset and did not feel much of the happiness of the [Christmas] festival because this happiness has always been linked with the church,” Gamil told Ahram Online.
Like Orthodox churches around the world, Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7 January, according to the Julian Calendar.
The festival comes almost two weeks after most Western denominations, including Catholics and Protestants, hold their celebrations on 25 December.
The Julian calendar is now 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, and 25 December in the Julian system falls on 7 January in the Gregorian system.
Celebrating Coptic Christmas
Orthodox Copts usually end the mass on 12am, but over the past years, security forces asked them to leave an hour or two earlier for security reasons.
This had happened due to the several terrorist attacks that followed the 30 June Revolution in 2013 that targeted churches, police and army personnel, as well as other civilians, especially during annual religious holidays. Attacks, however, have significantly declined over recent years.
Kamel Mourad, an Orthodox Copt, tells Ahram Online he thinks that tightened security measures and the state’s victory over terrorism would lead this security measure to fade away.
“Last year, we only followed the masses on TV screens and even broke our fast early when the mass was concluded in the church that we belong to,” Mourad said.
Ezzat Sameh, another Orthodox Copt, told Ahram Online that the rituals during Christmas mass were not entirely cancelled due to coronavirus last year, but the priest’s sermon became shorter and prayers were carried out faster.
Over the past week, Egyptian Orthodox Christians have been booking online the limited number of available spots to attend the Christmas Eve mass.
Sameh says he may not be able to attend the mass this year “although it is the best day of the year” because he fears spreading coronavirus to his family.
The joy of the Christmas season
“Christmas Eve is a time of real joy,” Mourad said, affirming that coronavirus “did not manage to spoil our happiness.”
The devout Copts of Egypt fast ahead of Christmas, where they are allowed to eat fish and other food but they have to refrain from dairy, poultry and meat.
“We flood streets to buy new clothes and some people fill their houses with balloons and joyful decorations. We prepare delicious, creamy and even costly food to break our fast. Christmas Eve is always a day that is full of joy and fun,” Mourad said.
“On this day, you can find all what you dream off on tables: chicken, meat, turkey, macarona béchamel (a derivative of lasagna with thick white sauce), chicken pane, meatballs and more.”
“On Christmas Day, you can still eat the rest of food that you, of course, could not finish on the previous night,” Mourad laughingly said.
Mourad said his family used to gather at their grandparents’ houses to celebrate Christmas after the mass.
“This is no more the case because of the coronavirus and as many beloved people departed our life,” Mourad, who is in his late twenties, said.
Being a paid holiday also makes it feel like you are officially happy and satisfied, Mourad says.
Thursday, 6 January, was a paid day off for public and private sector workers to mark Coptic Orthodox Christmas Day, according to cabinet decrees.
The paid leave came Thursday, instead of Friday, which is already an official weekly paid holiday for most of the public and private sector employees nationwide.
Sameh says Christmas represents a “special day that brings together many sweet memories that will leave you feeling happy and childlike.”
Gamil said that she feels that the joy of the Christmas even extends to the whole month of December when she sees Christmas trees and people wearing red clothes.
“We have a warm-hearted neighbour, about the age of our grandma, who keeps knocking on our door on Christmas Eve to give us sweet cakes,” Gamil said.
Mourad said he always finds himself flooded with congratulations and sweet wishes from his Muslim friends and neighbours.
“Our Muslim brothers are always there,” Mourad said, adding that he is looking forward to hanging out with his Muslim and Christian friends after the mass like he has every year.
Mostafa Khaled, a young Muslim man who used to have many Coptic neighbours and whose old house had overlooked a church for more than two decades, said although he does not have many memories with Christian brothers during Christmas, he is always keen to share happy times with them over the whole year.
“Our [Christian] brothers are always busy during festival times, but we wish that their all days are full of happiness,” Khaled told Ahram Online.
“[The national fabric] comprises Christians and Muslims, who share the same memories and destiny, always laughing or grieving for the same reasons,” Khaled said.
Preparing for the mass
Pope Tawadros II, the pope of Alexandria and the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is set to head the Coptic Christmas Mass on Christmas Eve in the Church of the Nativity of Christ in the New Administrative Capital.
The mass will be broadcast live on television and online.
Several churches nationwide are taking online bookings for in-person Christmas mass at 50 percent capacity.
The masses will be held amid precautionary measures, including the obligation to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
Late in December, Egypt’s Interior Minister Mahmoud Tawfik raised the national security alert to the highest level ahead of New Year and Christmas celebrations.
In a meeting with a number of his assistants and other top security officials, Tawfik ordered maximum vigilance and intensified measures to secure vital facilities, places of worship, tourist destinations, as well as the roads leading to these institutions.