It is a cold, late Friday morning, 27 December. Samy and Marianna are exiting an old bistro on Baghdad Street, in Heliopolis, carrying three packs of cookies, chocolates and cake and one bag of Seyami, or dairy-free, croissants.
“We are in the last days of the small fast; and we are getting ready for the eid (feast); we will go shopping for more eid items – hoping that everything will be peaceful and pleasant; it’s the best time of the year,” Marianna said.
Unlike followers of Western churches who celebrate Christmas on 25 December, followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church, like those of most other Eastern churches, celebrate Christmas on 7 January. The exception is the followers of the Armenian Orthodox Church who celebrate Christmas on 6 January.
The devout followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church observe a fast of over 50 days where they refrain from consuming pottery, meat or dairies. They break the fast on the late evening of 6 January after they attend the Christmas mass.
“Traditionally, the Christmas dinner used to be served past midnight at the very end of the mass but during the past 10 years or so we have become a bit soft and we start the dinner around 9 or 10 at night after having attended part of the mass,” Marianna said with a smile.
Milad, a waiter at this old Heliopolis bistro, agreed that the festivities now start a bit earlier on the evening of 6 January. “Then of course on 7 January we have a full house all day from opening to closing; and if [Coptic Christmas] is coming back-to-back with the weekend, then the show continues uninterrupted,” he said. “People keep coming in; they eat, drink and order desserts; everybody likes to indulge in this season,” he added.
The festive mood, Milad said, starts around mid-December. “We start putting up the Christmas decorations and display our cookies and chocolates side by side with the Seyami items; it is an exceptional season of festivities; everybody is really up to celebrate; we get to serve gatherings of all sorts of people as of mid-December.”
File photo: Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark Cathedral, leads Egypt's Coptic Christmas eve mass in Cairo, Egypt, January 6, 2016 (Reuters)
On Tuesday, 24 December, Milad and his colleagues served Christmas dinners both regular and Seyami for several groups of “practically really everyone, Muslims and Christians.”
“People came in and they were just eating and drinking, taking photos with their phones and buying cakes and cookies on their way out,” Milad said.
Last Tuesday was Christmas night, according to Western churches. Heliopolis is a traditional hub of the followers of Western churches. And although the communities are dwindling, the churches still put up their Christmas decorations and trees and open up for all those who wish to join the mood.
On 25 December, although a working day, the restaurants and cafes of Baghdad Street were full of clients who have been in for lunch or coffee and cakes to celebrate the Christmas mood.
Yasmine and Nour were having coffee and chocolate cake and going through their smart phones to look at the pictures they have just taken by the Christmas tree that the Heliopolis Heritage Group put up at the Korba Square.
Both women are Muslims, but for them “enjoying Christmas is about the mood.”
Yasmine had actually been to church the evening before with her neighbours who celebrate according to the Western calendar. On Wednesday, she “was still having fun.”
“Christmas and New Year are for everyone really; in a sense I think that in Egypt we sort of celebrate our holidays in a cross-faith fashion; I guess we like to have fun, to eat and just rejoice; it is part of who we are as Egyptians and not as Muslims or Catholics or Orthodox,” she said.
Worshippers attend the midnight Christmas Eve mass at Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in the Egyptian capital Cairo in the central downtown district on December 24, 2019. (AFP)
About a 30-minute drive away from Baghdad Street, on Al-Azhar Street, on the evening of 24 December, there was another truly communal and cross-faith celebration. It was El-Leila El-Kebira (the Grand Night, or the concluding and most festive night) of Moulid El-Hussein, according to the coincidence of the calendar that allowed the fourth month of the Hijra year to coincide with December.
Lamia, Maged, Tarek, Noha and Khaled had already found their way inside the huge crowd gathering next to the mosque of El-Hussein, they were hoping to celebrate the grand night with the anticipated melodies of Yassine El-Tohamy, the famous singer of Sufi songs.
The group is a bunch of Christian and Muslim students of art and history who live in the city and share a passionate love for moulids.
“I love the mood in the moulids in general, but I particularly love this moulid because it somehow seems to have a very intense presence,” Lamia said.
From start to end of the moulid, Lamia comes to do her drawings. Every day she picks up a theme and works on it “although it is very difficult to draw in the middle of such huge crowds but I find it irresistibly inspiring,” she said.
For the last day of the event, Lamia was planning to fulfil her “obsession” with the vendors of inexpensive sweets who came from several governorates to sell their commodities to this widely attended event.
Atta is one of the vendors that immediately attracted Lamia’s artistic instinct, “with those very deep wrinkles around his eyes; the dreamy look in the eyes that don’t seem to be paying much attention to the stuff he is about to sell.”
And, truly, Atta is not fully preoccupied with the business. For him, this is more of a spiritual moment rather than a good business opportunity.
“I am here to be next to El-Hussein; I just would never haggle over prices; I give away when I see a woman with a child if I feel she does not have enough money to buy him something; I ask the child to pick and take whatever he likes.”
Atta said that he does this to bring joy to the mother and child while knowing that El-Hussein would be giving him enough blessings to bring joy to his heart and soul.
“There is always plenty of time to sell but once in the presence of El-Hussein, it is time to get the blessings,” Atta said.
El-Hussein is one of the beloved grandchildren of Prophet Mohamed and he died during one of the early inter-Muslim armed feuds. He is known as sayed el-shohada (the supreme of all martyrs). He was born in the seventh month of the lunar calendar and he lost his life on the fourth month of the same calendar.
Egyptian Sufis celebrate his birth and his death on both times – with hundreds of thousands of people present at each time. This year, the celebration of his martyrdom started on 8 December and lasted until 24 December.
“It is a very common thing to find everyone coming to these celebrations; as Egyptians we love to celebrate saints and martyrs; we do it with the Muslim and Christian saints and
martyrs all the time,” said Maged.
He argued that it would be hard for him to find much difference between moulid El-Hussein and moulid El-Adra which is a celebration of Virgin Mary that takes place in the summer, starting in Cairo and ending in Upper Egypt.
An Egyptian street vendor looks on during the marking of the martyrdom of Al-Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad's grandson, outside the Al-Hussein mosque in old Islamic Cairo, Egypt, December 25, 2019. (Reuters)
Between the festivities of 24 and 25 December and those of 6 and 7 January, there comes the biggest and most celebrated of all festivities: New Year's Eve.
“On the last day of the year, the mall is always packed; people are coming and going; some are eating or drinking, others are shopping or just window-shopping; it is the busiest time for this mall and I am sure for most other shopping malls,” said Mahmoud, a manager of a mall on the west end of the city.
As of 12 December, Mahmoud observed the decoration of the entrance and floors of the mall; he coordinated with the many stores to make sure that by the 19th of the month, the full decoration is put up.
“A week before 24 December, everything has to be ready, the Christmas tree, the Christmas decorations and the poinsettias all over; this season is essentially about decoration; we put up decorations, of course, for Ramadan and Sham El-Nessim (Easter) – but no decorations are like Christmas decorations; people just love them,” Mahmoud said.
On New Year's Eve, he added, taking a stroll in a mall and taking pictures with decorations in the background are perhaps the only things some people do to celebrate the advent of the new year.
“They come along with their children. They buy them chocolate or hot chocolate; they take pictures; they say happy new year and they just go home hopeful and joyous. For us, this is a very rewarding moment; the most rewarding moment of the year,” he said.
A Christmas tree is displayed to celebrate the upcoming holiday season at a shopping mall in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Mai Shaheen)