Saving the best for last
A Cairene family tells Hicham Safieddine why the New Year holiday season will never upstage the thrill of Coptic Christmas
Youssef Beshay lets out a chuckle as his mother Nelly lists the dishes she could cook for Christmas. "By the time the Eid comes," she says, "it will have been 40 days since we last ate meat, so fatta is a must."
The 18-year-old American University in Cairo political science student butts in, "Don't forget the turkey."
It is a chilly evening in late December, and the Beshay family -- Nelly, Youssef, his sister Mariam, and his father Mounir -- are gathered in the living room beside a Christmas tree, munching on nuts as they talk, with Christmas carols playing in the background. Soon the Catholic celebration of the Birth of Christ on 25 December, together with the dawn of a new year, will be over.
But for eastern orthodox Christians, including Egypt's some nine million Copts, the coming of the New Year is merely the harbinger of the 7 January old-calendar-based anniversary date they follow. While consumerism and partying have imposed themselves on Western year-end celebrations, for Copts like the Beshays Christmas is still a deeply religious affair. It neither begins with a shopping spree nor climaxes with the opening of presents.
Rather, Christmas is about the culmination of over a month of prayer and fasting, sharing simple pleasures and a jolly good time. In the Beshay household, jubilation over the Christmas season has not faded over time -- with the growing up of the kids, for example -- though its means of expression has changed.
"We used to have a natural tree for Christmas," Mounir explains, "but we've come to find an artificial one cleaner." He adds that, for most Copts, the tree is associated more with New Year than with Christmas.
Presents are still exchanged with much enthusiasm, but they are no longer placed under the tree. The eidiya, or Christmas allowance, gradually increased as the children grew older. "When we were young the allowance was all about spending," says Youssef. "Now we think of saving more of it."
One unchanged ritual is decorating the house -- a group effort. Christmas paraphernalia are bought over the course of the month and a day is set when members of the family join forces and hang the Santa Claus dolls, the bells, and the tinsels all around and on the Christmas tree.
Nor has the ritual of donning of new clothes faded. "We are old now," 16-year-old Mariam, a talented painter, says, "but we still like to see each other in new clothes. We also think of how we can make our lives better by following the example of Christ." She adds that it is a great opportunity to reach out to others, while Nelly elaborates, "it is a time to remember how Jesus was not accepted during his lifetime and how we should seek to include all those who are alienated in our society, such as the poor."
On Christmas Eve, the family upholds Coptic traditions. Dressed in new outfits, they spend the night praying at the neighbourhood church, with the service lasting till midnight. Bells toll to mark the end of the midnight mass and the host is received by the faithful before they leave to reunite with their families over dinner (usually, in this case, at the house of Nelly's sister). The qurban (Eucharist) has a Holy Cross at the centre and 12 dots representing the 12 apostles of Christ. The next morning, families visit their friends and neighbours and exchange greetings and kahk (sweet Eid cookies). Nelly says, "I am preparing kahk for this Christmas with two of my friends, and one of them is Muslim. I love the fact that she is helping us out."
Riots and violence that broke out in Alexandria over a church-produced play that allegedly insulted Islam last October, she adds, left many Copts with a lingering unease; the rise of religious tension goes against the nature of Egyptians. She goes on: "these things may not be directly connected to Christmas, but one feels something is not right and that can affect the general mood of many Christians."
Yet more recent developments like 7 January being designated an official holiday and the Christmas sermon being broadcast on national television have made a positive impact in this regard. "It is a very good thing," Mounir says, "for Christians in Egypt to feel they can share their holidays with the nation as a whole. And the broadcast is great because for Copts who, for one reason or another, are unable to go to church on Christmas day, they can still watch the sermon from the comfort of their own homes."
The whole community will have awaited the day, following a long journey of cleansing both soul and body through fasting. For in the six weeks that precede Christmas, Copts abstain from eating meat, poultry or dairy products. Recently, more and more bakeries and restaurants have managed to prepare and sell dishes dubbed siyami, including deserts that use alternative ingredients -- thus easing the burden somewhat.
"There is even siyami cheese," Youssef says with a smile, to which his mother responds, "But it tastes awful."
Through the fast, especially during the last four weeks, night prayers are held in churches across the country for singing hymns and chanting supplications. Mostly in Arabic, the prayers include Coptic verses. There is a mix of joyful and sombre hymns, to suit all churches and occasions. Youssef explains, "I go to the Al-Zeytoun Church because they perform a lot of farayhi (cheerful) tunes."
In the last few years, Youssef and several of his friends have taken to attending service at the imposing house of worship in Heliopolis where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared some decades back.
For the last few Saturdays before 7 January, Copts will converge on the church to take part in prayers, in some cases standing and reciting supplications for hours, something that will often go on past midnight. Youssef has also taken to touring disinherited neighbourhoods to hand out food to the poor.
Joseph Thabet, scout leader at the Virgin Mary Church in Shobra, says youth activism has been growing in the past few years and peaks during the Christmas season. Youth activities include tours of Christian homes in the neighbourhood to spread the teachings of Jesus and urge residents to come and check church activities to make sure no one spends the holy day alone.
Thabet gives an example, "there is a group of old women who live by themselves and are not looked after by their families, so in the past five years we've brought them chocolate and spent some time with them on the day of the Eid. We feel more enthusiastic about these activities at this time because as Christmas approaches, you feel as if you have been on a long spiritual journey of which it is the fruit."
Church priest Samuel Labib says the church tries to look after all who are in need at this time of year. In the run-up to Christmas, a church delegation also pays courtesy visits to families who have lost a loved one, have a sick person among them or are celebrating a happy occasion such as a wedding or a birth.
After around 19 years of serving the congregation as a priest, he has noticed little things that have changed through time: "When everyone knew everyone else, people used to keep their home lights on when they came to church -- to express the joy of the celebration. Now only the church lights are on. Besides, more people used to make kahk themselves, whereas now most will buy it ready-made."
Overall, however, father Labib adds, the spirit of Coptic Christmas -- with many of its conservative and traditional aspects -- has lived through good, bad and changing times. To keep it alive and well, special attention is paid to children during Christmas at church, with contests on religious topics held and prizes ranging from Barbie dolls to puzzles distributed to the winners. For Father Labib, the young bear a special place that symbolises birth, hope and regeneration -- all of which are associations of the Advent of Christ: "If you ask me about my favourite place after the Christmas mass, I will tell you with the children, to feel the happiness in their midst."