The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Christmas in Egypt

Posted by vmsalama on December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate the holiday today.  Here’s a short, light piece I posted on Washingtonpost.com today regarding the question of whether non-Christian countries are encorporating Christmas traditions into mainstream culture.  Naturally, I focused on Egypt. 

by Vivian Salama

PostGlobal, WashingtonPost.com

            The first year I lived in Egypt, Ramadan fell in November.  Journalists are often invited to company iftars (the meal to break fast) as a way of networking and exchanging in the holiday spirit.   You can imagine my surprise when, at one of these iftars, Santa Claus marched in to spread …Ramadan cheer(!?) 
            While this is an absolutely comical (and unusual) incident, Christmas is by no means a laughing matter in the Arab world’s most populous nation.   Of the 75 million people crammed mostly along the banks of the Nile River, approximately 15 percent are Christians – mostly Coptic Orthodox.  Along the streets of Cairo, holiday lights and decorations commemorate Christmas and the Muslim majority goes out of its way to share in the holiday spirit just as many Christians do during the month-long celebration of Ramadan.   Unlike the West, where the consumer craze has obliterated all logic, and “celebrations” (read: shopping season) start in October, Coptic Christmas is not synonymous for parties, eggnog and mistletoe.   Rather, it is the end of a 40-day fast where families often flock to midnight mass and eat various traditional dishes.  In fact, traditions such as the Christmas tree and Father Christmas ( “Baba Noel”) have only recently been incorporated into the culture.  

            That said, Christmas 2003 was one to remember in Egypt as President Hosni Mubarak – for the first time – marked it as a national holiday.   The usually congested streets of Cairo are now ghost towns on the Eastern Orthodox Christmas (January 7) as Christians and Muslims alike stay home from school and work.   While Egypt still maintains the practice of listing religion on national identification cards, Christians are very much a part of mainstream society and incidents of marginalization have been isolated.  Many Christians in Egypt hold public offices.   Even Egypt’s richest man, Naguib Sawiris, CEO of Orascom Telecom is a Copt and is responsible for building a number of churches in Egypt’s upper class resort towns.  Most Christians welcomed the move to declare Christmas a national holiday, particularly given domestic fears by Christians and moderate Muslims that the country may be headed in the same direction of some of the more conservative, less secular Arab states.   
            While Christmas may not be the best example, Western customs have seeped into Egyptian culture in other ways.   Valentine’s Day is an absolute obsession in this ancient nation where young lovers shower each other with material sentiments since physical sentiments (at least pre-marital) are frowned upon.   However Egypt still maintains some of its ancient traditions as well.  The day after Easter Sunday is a national holiday commemorating Sham el Naseem, a celebration which dates back to Pharonic times commemorating the start of Spring.  Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish and onions, as well as a young woman, to the Gods of the Nile River.  Today, no woman is sacrificed, but families do maintain the tradition of eating salted fish and onions, and several production companies even reenact the Pharonic offerings to commemorate this ancient festival.  

by Vivian Salama

Valentine’s Day in Cairo


One Response to “Christmas in Egypt”

  1. raymonty said

    Merry Christmas to you and all of the “Good Trolls” on the Internet – Raymonty/Good Troll(founder).

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