A KHAWAGA'S TALE: A late Christmas in Egypt

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

Christmas is a time for divorce. Well, it is in the UK anyway. Divorce lawyers say that their first day back to work after the Christian holiday is the busiest time of the year.

The Egyptian Copts preface their Christmas celebration with 43 days of fasting, not 43 days of racking up credit card debt, passing drunken slurs at office Christmas parties or deciding this would be the best time to declare an elicit love affair.

Much more than just a date separates a western and eastern Christmas let me tell you. Though the historic variation in calendars is an obvious difference, when the silly season rolls around, we might as well be worshiping different Gods.

It is known as the silly season because people literally are silly. In every definition of the word, dear reader, as listed by my thesaurus: stupid, ridiculous, daft, impractical, mad, childish, inane, asinine and juvenile. Christmas brings out the feasting, adulterous, superstitious pagan in the western hemisphere.

In the Eastern Church, or more specifically in Egypt, Christmas maintains a reverent octave that is appropriate for celebrating the birth of the Messiah not a clamour of hooves pounding down department store doors on Boxing day in search of yet another shopping fix.

I attended a midnight service on Christmas Eve in Chester, England. It wasn’t Mass, but an ecumenical carol service. I must be honest, I found the carol singing off-key and the Bible readings dull. You shouldn’t attend these things for entertainment, especially at Christmas, because it is a celebration of the birth of the saviour for heavens sake, not something to do when the popular BBC program “Strictly Comes Dancing finishes on the telly.

You only have to contrast this with the way families on mass troupe off to midnight Mass in Cairo and the ringing of the bells at midnight. If a church cranked up the belfry in England, or anywhere else for that matter at midnight, they would get slapped with a fine for noise pollution.

The overt consumerism of the west at Christmas is sinful. The millions, the billions spent on unnecessary piles of gifts is gluttony. Cairo has the wonderful custom of holding Christmas bazaars for charity, which caters for the tradition of gift giving and reconciling the spirit of the season. This is the spirit of Christmas, giving to the less fortunate. The symbolism of Jesus being born where farm animals sleep should be fairly obvious.

The Coptic language and the culture is our link with the Pharaonic world. From the Rosetta Stone, to the months of the Coptic calendar and, arguably, the Christmas tree.

Christianity has taken much from the ancient Egyptians.

Long before the Christian era, the palm-tree spray with its 12 shoots symbolized the winter solstice and the end of the year. This symbol transplanted neatly, firstly with the Romans during the saturnalia feast in honour of Saturn, where fir trees were decorated with burning taper, and later with the Christmas season.

In contrast, how did an early Bishop of Myra in Turkey move from being canonized as Saint Nicholas to become the jolly chap in red and white who lives in the North Pole and delivers presents via the chimney?

The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus is nothing short of a marketing miracle that has produced an image of Christmas that is used to sell everything and anything. You name it and Santa has sold it. From Coca-Cola to rock music, the list is endless. Why is Santa so successful? Because all you have to do is be good and Santa will deliver, without having to dirty your hands with the Christmas spirit.

Not all is different though between the eastern and western churches at Christmas. Western leaders, presidents and prime ministers alike, all send out a Christmas message to their people. In the United Kingdom, there is the Queen s Christmas speech, which goes out to all the 53 Commonwealth nations and comes after the Christmas pudding and before the first family fight.

Gamal Mubarak, son of Egypt s President Hosni Mubarak, also took part in this tradition of political figures acknowledging Christmas when he attended the Coptic Christmas eve mass held at St. Mark Cathedral.

Of course, Christmas traditions vary significantly around the world. The yuletide, open fire and snow of Scandinavia to an Australian family eating turkey sandwiches on Bondi beach. Christmas is typically Christian; it fits in wherever and with whomever. It’s a malleable feast, celebration, holy day or holiday.

But whatever it is, don’t despair this January, because it all happens again in 345 days – or is that 358?

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