The Santa-tisation of Coptic Orthodox Christmas in Egypt
Egypt is a pluralist society, inhabited by a Sunni Muslim majority and several minority populations, including various Coptic Christian denominations. In a society where religion is deeply rooted in identity politics, recognition by the majority and the community as visible members of the nation is fundamental to understanding and forming identities.
Since his investiture in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made calls for the eradication of religious extremism, seized charities with suspect funding, and lectured religious leaders on moderating doctrine and civic affairs. Every year, Pope Tawadros II issues an annual Christmas message and President al-Sisi regularly attends the Coptic Orthodox cathedral during the Christmas Mass in a gesture of peaceful co-existence between the country’s Muslims and Christians.
This sign of national unity and recognition is often lauded as proof of the integral place of Copts in Egyptian society. Orthodox Christmas was marked a national holiday in 2002 under the Mubarak government and finally approved as a paid day off for employees at governmental institutions and public sector companies in 2019.
Christians make up approximately 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population and the Coptic Orthodox constitute approximately 90 percent of that number. Unlike their Catholic or Protestant coreligionists, the Coptic Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7th according to the Julian calendar – like their Syriac and Indian Orthodox sister Churches.
"In recent years, Western Christmas celebrations have eclipsed the Orthodox indigenous Christmas celebrations from the public sphere because of the escalating Westernisation and hyper-capitalisation of Egyptian society"
But recent years have seen a commercialisation of Christmas celebrations in Egypt, as December 25th Christmas celebrations displace Coptic Orthodox Christmas in Egypt. Could the embrace of a Santa-tised Western-style Christmas lead to the loss of gains made by the country’s largest Christian minority and further marginalise the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt’s public sphere?
In recent years, Western Christmas celebrations have eclipsed the Orthodox indigenous Christmas celebrations from the public sphere because of the escalating Westernisation and hyper-capitalisation of Egyptian society. Evident throughout major cities across Egypt, this process is far more accelerated and vivid in affluent suburbs, such as Sheikh Zayed and the Fifth Settlement, distinguished as they are by the socio-economic profiles of residents and entanglements in global markets.
Sociologist Dr. Amro Ali notes that “this trend to embrace Western Christmas celebrations reflects the continued alignment with global capitalism and Egypt’s desire to have a place among ‘modern’ nations in the world.”
What is Coptic Orthodox Christmas?
Central to the Coptic Orthodox Christmas celebrations is a holy fast that lasts for 43 days, which includes religious worship throughout the month of Kiahk and requires Copts to adopt a vegan diet and abstain from animal products until Christmas eve night (January 6th).
After the Christmas eve service, families gather in joyful merriment in the early hours of January 7th to break fast with favored dishes, including fatta – a bowl of rice, crispy bread, and boiled lamb or beef that is topped with some broth and a tangy garlic sauce. On Christmas morning, one of the most anticipated treats is Kahk, buttery sugar cookies filled with pistachios and honey or agwa (sweet date paste), or even just plain walnuts.
Beyond the festivities, Christmas (much like the Muslim celebration of Eid) is a time of reflection and spirituality. Families will give food to those in need and donate financially to their places of worship.
Of course, the ‘traditional’ Coptic Christmas menu has changed much in response to modern lifestyles, globalisation, and migration, as have the practices of families both within and outside Egypt’s borders.
There is yet another annual Christmas tradition for Coptic Orthodox Christians: a bombardment of articles that appear in periodicals around the world answering the same old questions: Who are the Copts? What is Coptic Christmas? How and why is it different from Western Christmas? In this framing, the Copts are always rendered an oddity to be introduced anew and Western Christians the norm against which all else must be measured.
One such article appeared around this time last year, but with a twist. Writing for Egyptian Streets, Mary Aravanis described in “Christmas: a Special Holiday Celebrated Twice in Egypt” that “Western culture has associated us more with December 25th”. Despite this necessary insight, the goal of the article is to introduce once again who the Copts are and what they celebrate, and Aravanis may contribute to a trend of othering indigenous Coptic traditions.
A Christmas Story
Around mid-December, Christmas lights are placed on palm trees and decorations dot private compounds and public roundabouts across Egypt. Family and friends go out to Christmas festivals and choir performances, watching children excitedly hurrying between chubby Santas and glowing reindeer figures that sit amid fake boxes of presents.
Standing in the audience of a choir performance at Zed Park on the 22nd of December, listening to renditions of popular carols such as Silent Night, Deck the Halls, and Joy to the World, Egyptians of all walks of life gather to hear lyrics about Christ and the Virgin Mary.
"The performers, dressed as elves, sing in English and no Arabic hymns play the whole night. The sense of displacement and dislocation is tangible, and the absence of local Arabic music feels inauthentic"
Yet the performers, dressed as elves, sing in English and no Arabic hymns play the whole night. The sense of displacement and dislocation is tangible, and the absence of local Arabic music feels inauthentic.
Of course, all this represents less the celebration of the Coptic Christmas season and its spiritual connotations and more the commercialisation of Western-style Christmas in the Egyptian context. Shopping centres from City Stars to Cairo Festival City are filled to capacity with holiday shoppers looking for the best deals and planning out their gift-giving for Christmas day.
The floating of the Egyptian pound in 2016 and slow claw back of subsidies have drawn Egypt closer to US markets. Although the prospect of a Free Trade agreement remains elusive, it is evident now more than ever before that the globalisation of American culture through economic imperialism is affecting all aspects of Egyptian society, including the adoption of a hyper-commercialised Christmas season of festivals, shopping, and gift-giving.
The result in Egypt is the displacement of the indigenous Coptic Orthodox Christmas in the public sphere in favour of a Santa-tised Christmas. On January 3rd, merely a few days before Egypt’s largest Christian population celebrate their holy day, all the decorations are taken down, and the public festivities are concluded.
For Fady Maher, his family of three have always celebrated Christmas on both days along with Coptic Catholic and Protestant friends and neighbors, exchanging holiday greetings and meeting at church festivals. But commercialised public celebrations have made the 25th far more recognisable as the Christmas for many people, ill-informed of denominational differences among Egypt’s Christian minorities. As images of parties, malls, and public displays flood social media, Fady confides, “While before I received celebratory holiday messages from coworkers and acquaintances on the 7th, now I receive them on the 25th. There is a change in perception.”
As the state continues in its efforts to engage global capitalism and society adopts Western and supposedly ‘modern’ ideals, what does it mean for young Copts to watch as their Christmas is eclipsed by the hyper-commercialised December Christmas?
Miray Philips, doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, like Maher, sees December 25th as still an “occasion to gather and celebrate Christmas with my Catholic, Orthodox, non-religious, and Muslim friends.” The 25th is “all about the photos next to Christmas trees, gift exchanges, and everything red and green,” while the Orthodox Christmas is increasingly sidelined as “a private celebration.” For Philips, on January 6th “a visit to an increasingly securitised church is often followed by an intimate celebration with our family and close friends.”
As Orthodox Copts, we are taught to value the Church as our mother and immerse ourselves not in extravagance but in the family gatherings this time of year. Indeed, fasting, prayer, and reflection are a vital aspect of Orthodox Christmas for many. But for most of Egypt’s Christians, Christmas celebrations do not begin in mid-December and end on January 3rd.
Fundamental to the self-image of Copts is the dual nature of their ethno-religious identity as both Coptic and Egyptian. On the one hand, we may choose to be hopeful and see the growing popularity of December 25th as a sign of broader societal acceptance to come.
"While before I received celebratory holiday messages from coworkers and acquaintances on the 7th, now I receive them on the 25th. There is a change in perception"
On the other hand, commercialised December 25th celebrations may instead signal the dislocation of Coptic Orthodox Christmas in Egyptian society. The uninterrupted avalanche of annual articles about “who are the Copts?” do not help matters, perpetuating the notion of Copts as marginal and colluding in the framing of Western-style Christmas as the norm against which all else is measured. In addition, this trajectory risks side-lining Orthodox Copts’ right to equal civic participation.
Young Copts have the right to stake their claim to civic recognition, to publicly embrace their sense of rootedness in the nation, and thereby assert that it would indeed enrich the republic. Without this, future generations could lose sight of their distinctiveness, or further intensify an ongoing emigration of skilled young professionals searching for recognition beyond Egypt’s borders.
Dr. Michael Akladios is a Toronto-based historian and the founder and executive director of Egypt Migrations, an educational and archival not-for-profit in Canada.
Follow him on Twitter: @michaelakladios