What is Coptic Christmas and how will Egypt celebrate this year?

The day ends a 43-day fast and is a more austere affair

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Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on Friday, nearly two weeks after most of Christendom’s other denominations.

Of the world’s Christian communities, the orthodox churches in Russia, Ethiopia, Serbia and Ukraine are the major ones that join Egypt’s Orthodox Copts in celebrating Christmas on January 7.

One of the world’s oldest Christian communities, Egypt’s Christians account for 10 per cent of the country’s predominantly Muslim population. Most of the country’s Christians are Orthodox, with tiny Catholic and Anglican communities.

A man poses for a photo holding miniature Christmas trees along a main street in the northern suburb of Shubra (home to a large Christian population) of Egypt's capital Cairo on December 31, 2021. AFP

Here is what you need to know about Egypt’s Christians:

Who are Egypt's Christians?

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origins to the first century AD when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded by Egypt’s Christians as the first Pope of Alexandria, the original seat of the church.

Early Christians in Egypt suffered persecution under Roman rule and continued to suffer systematic, albeit intermittent, persecution for centuries afterward.

Egypt was almost entirely Christian on the eve of the Muslim Arab conquest around 640AD. It remained majority Christian until around the 13th century.

The genesis of the word “Coptic” is the Greek word for Egypt, Aeygyptus.

Who is the head of Egypt's Orthodox Christians?

Pope Tawadros II, 69, is currently the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Orthodox Christians. He is the 118th pontiff of the Coptic Orthodox church. He ascended the “throne” of St Mark the Apostle in 2012 following the death of his predecessor, Pope Shenouda III.

Why do Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7?

Primarily because of the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The emergence of two Christian calendars is steeped in a complex process that dates back to the early days of Christianity. In some ways, the two calendars are also a reflection of the centuries-old “schism” between the Catholic Church in Rome and the eastern churches.

What do Coptic Christians do at Christmas?

They celebrate Christmas in much the same way as other Christians, but with some of the western, modern-era traditions such as the decorated tree and exchange of gifts embraced only by the well-to-do rather than everyone.

The Christmas Mass begins around 8pm and ends at midnight, when worshippers go home to break their 43-day vegan-pescatarian fast with indigenous meat dishes such as the fatah, which is made of white rice, meat cubes and crispy bread soaked in soup and covered with a layer of garlicky yoghurt.

Will the pandemic affect Mass?

Yes, it will, but not much more than it has over the past two years.

After a period of total closure, churches in Egypt have since the summer of 2020 introduced a set of rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among members of their congregations. Face masks are obligatory and social distancing is diligently observed. Because of the reduced capacity of churches, the first-come-first served rule is applicable. Late comers to the Christmas service will be turned away.

Pope Tawadros will lead the service in the seldom-used cathedral built in Egypt's new capital in the desert east of Cairo. The number of people allowed to attend that service will be severely limited, but it will be broadcast live.

January 6 has been declared a national holiday in lieu of Christmas day, which falls on the Egyptian Friday-Saturday weekend.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 7:07 PM