Christmas in Egypt (North Africa)
A Brief History
The Coptic (Egyptian) Christian church is one of the oldest in the world. Christianity was introduced to Egypt by the Apostle Mark, who wrote the gospel of Mark, around 41 AD. Christianity spread throughout Egypt within a half century of Mark’s arrival in Alexandria, Egypt. That Egypt was the place God chose to send His Son for safe haven, is a source of great pride to Coptic Christians (Matt. 2:12-23).
Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Leontiy of Rostov- 15th century Russian icon
The Coptic Church’s influence on Christendom extends even to the present day in the form of the Nicene Creed. The present wording of the Creed was mainly influenced by Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373 AD). Athanasius would later become a Church Father, and Patriarch of Alexandria, succeeding the famous Alexandros of Alexandria. Athanasius’s impact on the early church cannot be overstated, as he fought ardently against false teachings that dominated the church about the doctrine of the Trinity. He is considered even today as one of the great defenders of the faith. In addition, Athanasius compiled a list of the 27 books that he felt should comprise the New Testament. Although many lists were made before and after, his is the one we use today.
Another of Egypt’s contributions to Christianity is monasticism. The idea that a Christian could live solitarily, simply and fully devoted to God became a popular ideal, one credited to St. Anthony of Egypt, considered a pioneer of such living. Monasteries grew to be a common part of Christian spiritual discipline, with many people choosing to join monasteries or convents, often taking vows of poverty, silence and/or purity.
As has been observed throughout history, Christianity thrives under persecution, and it was no different in Egypt. Though Nero is infamous for his persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, Diocletian was much worse. As part of the Holy Roman Empire, Christians in Egypt suffered terribly during the Great Persecution (303-313 AD) under the Emperor Diocletian. Martyrdom was especially high in Egypt and North Africa, leading to many conversions. So great was this persecution, the Coptic Calendar (based on the Egyptian Calendar-- one of the oldest in the world) was reset to begin counting from the year 284. This is the year Diocletian became emperor. Thus, the Coptic year is identified by AM for ‘Anno Martyrum’ or ‘Year of the Martyrs.’
By the beginning of the 11th century, Islam had begun to dominate Egypt. With it came further persecution of Christians. The religious make-up of Egypt would change to being predominately Muslim up until this day. Presently, Christians only comprise 10% of the total population in Egypt. Of this number, 90% are Coptic Christians. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th—as do the Christians in Ethiopia. This is because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church broke away from the Coptic Orthodox Church some years ago, but it retains the tradition of celebrating Christmas on January 7th.
“Colo sana wintom tiebeen” means Merry Christmas in Egyptian. Traditionally, Coptic Christians fast for 43 days leading up to Christmas. This is called ‘lent fasting.’ In more recent years, many Copts may only observe the last week of the 43 day fast. The fast is not from all food, but from meat, fish, eggs and dairy, in addition to not eating or drinking before sunset.
Just as in the West, homes are decorated with lights and Christmas trees, even though this is a predominately Muslim country. Santa can be seen riding a camel-- while street markets, run by the church, sell items for Christmas gifts. Christians go to church on Christmas Eve to attend a service that ends at midnight and is followed by the ringing of the church bells. During the service, special bread called qurban, is given to the attendees, and made available after the service. Qurban, which means sacrifice, is decorated with a cross surrounded by 12 dots to symbolize the 12 disciples.
When the service is over, families go home to break their fast with a Christmas meal called ‘fata.’ This meal consists of boiled meat, rice, bread and garlic. Children receive new clothes and gifts. On Christmas morning people visit friends and neighbors; they make a special sweet cookie called ‘kahk,’ which they take with them to give to those they visit. Kahk is also decorated with a cross by Christians. Making and eating kahk is a thoroughly Egyptian tradition, in that it dates back to Pharaonic times. Drawings of the process, which differs little from the past, have been discovered on the walls of the 18th dynasty tombs in Memphis and Thebes.
Daily, in all Coptic Churches all over the world, Copts pray for the reunion of all Christian Churches. They pray for Egypt, its Nile, its crops, its president, its army, its government, and above all, its people. They pray for the world's peace and for the well-being of the human race.
Pray for Christians in Egypt. Egypt is in the top 20 ranking of countries that persecute Christians according to the Open Doors Watch List. Egypt lies in the 10/40 Window; the population is 90% Muslim. The decision to convert to Christianity can carry serious economic and legal ramifications.