Christmas in Cairo
January 7, 2012
It is 4:30 a.m. here in Cairo. Officially it is Christmas morning, and I have to say that these last two (2) days have been probably the most special and spiritual of my life. As a scholar I learned a great deal about Christmas in this Holy land which I will discuss in a few moments. But as an idealist, mother, and romantic I have learned and witnessed more than I could have ever imagined.
Some of us forget that Egypt is considered part of the Holy land for it was the ancient Egyptian people who kept the Holy Family safe when they fled Herod’s rage. The Holy Family came to Egypt and stayed approximately (ish) three and one half years. (3 ½) They traveled throughout Egypt from the east to southern Egypt then back again to Israel. Matthew 2:13-15 states “…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” So Joseph rose and took the child and hHs mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (NIV translation)
But there are other historical facts that have a major impact on our lives today. For example the very word Christmas is of ancient Egyptian origin. The word consists of two (2) syllables: Christ and mas. Of course the word Christ derives from the name of Christ found in the gospel of Luke: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. (NIV: Luke 2:11-12). The word mas literally translates as birth and derives from the Hieroglyphic language – as a symbol of three (3) lotus flowers growing up and intertwining together.
Many of you have heard me say how difficult it would be for me to be a Copt for they fast constantly!! And, I have to admit…..I LOVE to eat!! However their fasts are slightly different. In California they would be considered a cleansing fast for they eat only vegetarian foods. The two (2) main fasts are the fast of Easter (Lent) and the Christmas fast. The Easter fast is considered a deprivation fast (i.e. something we need to cleanse and/or give up) and will be addressed in a later paper and/or story. The Christmas fast, on the other hand, is what the Copts would call a joyous fast. At first this sounds like an oxymoron or paradox. After all, how can depriving oneself for forty-three (43) days of something be joyous? But the Coptic Christmas fast is based on two (2) historical events. The first forty (40) days refer to the forty days of Moses being on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments as described in Exodus 24:18 Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain ; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (New American Standard Translation)
The second part of the Christmas fast lasts three (3) days. This is based on a very special miracle that occurred here in Egypt called EL MOKATTAM. (The Mountain) It is a rather long and beautiful story about Saint Simon a craftsman (tanner) who told Pope Abraam to go out with his priests and all his people to the mountain with the Caliph and all his soldiers. Simon then told Pope Abraam to cry out "O Lord, have mercy" three times, and each time to make the sign of the cross over the mountain. The patriarch followed the words of Simon and the mountain was lifted. After the miracle was performed in the presence of the Caliph, the Pope turned left and right looking for St. Simon, but he had disappeared and no one could find him. The Caliph turned to Abraam and said "O Patriarch, I have recognized the correctness of your faith." There is a longer version with more detail. You can read it by clicking on this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_the_Tanner It is also important (and fun) to note that this (and Matthew – 17:20) is where we get our ideal/idiom of Faith can and will move mountains.
The forty-three days of the Christmas fast is considered a joyous time for the Copts celebrate with psalms (Joyous or happy songs). New Year’s Eve is an especially joyous time for the Copts. Instead of going out and ringing in the New Year at a dinner or hotel, they go to church to celebrate a very special Mass. They confess their sins of the last year to God (not to a priest), ask for forgiveness, and then promise to try and serve God in the coming year and for the rest of their lives to the best of their ability. During the last five (5) minutes of this service and year, all the lights of the church are tuned off except for one candle. During this time people enjoy the quietness of the candle’s light, asking God for His Forgiveness. It is a few minutes to end the year with its happiness and sadness and then they begin the new year by praying, “Oh God, bless the beginning of this year with your goodness.”
Christmas Eve services (Mass) begins sometime in the evening. They are not the normal hour long service we have in the United States. They have the high Mass with a brief (yes brief) message which is ALWAYS positive and inspiring. The services are conducted in the Coptic language. It is the custom for each person to wear something new. This represents the newness of the birth. For me, I have always wanted to hear the bells of the Egyptian Coptic Churches ring at midnight announcing the birth of Jesus ~~ specifically the bells of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. I remember my childhood when the bell of our Congregational Church in Barstow would do the same thing. For me it is a magical few minutes where the silence of the darkness is broken by the beauty and purity of the bell. Last night as midnight approached, I stood on my balcony in anticipation. I thought about going to midnight Mass, but felt as if I would be intruding. It is their time….a time for families, a time to celebrate being Egyptian, and a time to be together as a Christian community. For some reason, I wanted to experience the bells announcing the divine child I hold in my heart privately, alone under the full Christmas moon. And….it was even more magical than I imagined. As I stood on my balcony the busy streets of Cairo were silent. There were no cars or the beep, beep that goes along with them. As the bells began to toll I looked to the heavens and saw the Christmas moon. It was full and seemed to be lighting my way back to my wonderful childhood memories and the Child who guides my path. It was a perfect way to celebrate the birth of Christ.
After I came back into my flat, a very dear friend called to say he was coming to bring me to his family’s home to begin the Christmas celebration. A few weeks ago, he honored me by asking me to join them during their family dinner. He told me in his quiet way he considered me a sister. When we arrived to their flat (apt) I was kissed and embraced by each family member both young and old. A little while later other family members (cousins, second cousins and many other relations) called, came to eat, or have a sip of tea. And each time I was included just like one of the family. I even got a chance to say hello this uncle who lives in California. It was wonderful to hear his voice for I have missed him and his family. Christmas dinner here consists of many different kinds of meat. I had rice, turkey, beef, veal, fried liver, pasta, and some other foods I couldn’t even identify but tasted so incredibly delicious I didn’t miss the vegetables and fruits one bit. I ate soooooo much but it was so delicious I went back for more!!The dinner was topped off by having a wonderful slice of strawberry torte after singing Happy Birthday to two family members in attendance. Their birthdays fall on the same day. It was the noisy and crazy type of Christmas I love with children running looking for Santa, babies being passed around, discussions of everything and anything in a few different languages, all while a woman was singing on the television. After a while the smaller children were sent to a room. They were told Santa was hiding someplace. When the children were let out to find Santa they ran from room to room, up and down the steps of the building (My friend and his wife live on one of the top floors with no lift/elevator so I stopped counting) When the two (yes two) Santa’s were found their bag of gifts were opened and presented to each child. The custom here is that each child gets a toy from Santa. Then the adults (parents) give the children a small amount of money to buy treats or candy. It was a Christmas full of tradition, joy, laughter, and fun. And the common thread was love…..love of family, love of life, and love for the divine child who came to this earth over 2000 years ago to teach us that Allah/God loves us so very much that he gave us his son.
I left the celebration about 3:30 a.m. in the car my friend and his family. While my friend's son drove through the quiet streets the short way home I noticed the Christmas moon was still full and seemed to be smiling brightly. It gave me the feeling of being blessed ~~ blessed to have loving friends, blessed to be witnessing history in the making and able to write about it, and blessed to have the dream of hearing the bells toll come true.
For those who believe Christianity is in jeopardy here in Egypt, please do not worry. Christmas is alive and well here. This Christmas has been one of the best and most memorable I have ever had and, most likely, ever will have. It is almost 7:30 a.m. here now. I have received messages from both my Coptic and Muslim friends to have a Merry Christmas. It is time for me to say goodbye to the Christmas moon and goodnight to you. My wish for you is to have a Christmas like I have had this year each and every day of your life. Merry Christmas my friends. May you always have a full Christmas moon to look up to, and a Child to guide your way.
In kind regards,