If you’re the type who is sorry to see Christmas end each year, you can come to Egypt and celebrate the holiday twice. Christians in Egypt, called Copts, make up about ten percent of the country’s population and, like Christians in some other countries such as Russia, they are orthodox. I learned shortly after arriving in Dahab a couple of months ago that orthodox Christians, including Copts, celebrate Christmas day not on December 25 as we do in most of the Christian world, but on January 7. I must have heard about this January Christmas earlier in my life, but the information didn’t stick. In the wee hours of this morning, though, I got to have Christmas dinner with a small group of Coptic Christians as well as Muslims, making it impossible to forget Coptic Christmas ever again.
It was a memorable time but, unlike Christmas in my home country, in Egypt this holiday doesn’t last six weeks, with trees, tinsel and mistletoe everywhere you look and millions of people going further into debt to buy gifts. This was a very toned down version of Christmas, with a sweet simplicity.
I am told that a traditional Christmas for Coptic Christians consists of going to a midnight Christmas Eve mass, followed by a large meal, eaten either at some point the next day or immediately after returning home. No decorations, no caroling and no presents, except for sometimes gifts for children. My group didn’t go to the midnight service, instead arriving at Joseph and Annet’s apartment at that time. At 1:15 a.m. a turkey came out of the oven, we added heaps of rice and the traditional Arab salad of diced cucumbers and tomatoes and ate our Christmas dinner. Incidentally, this was the best turkey I’ve eaten in my life.
With Arab music playing over the computer, courtesy of our impromptu DJ Mamdu, everyone drank a little Egyptian Sakara beer and talked for a while, until heading home about 2:30 am. Yes, this was the most unusual Christmas I’ve ever spent in my life, and not one I am ever going to forget.