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A Coptic Christmas

Members of one of the most ancient rites of the Church, the Copts of Egypt are descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the Nile Valley.

by Sr. Theresa Mary

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Biblical history, before the birth of Christ, contains many references to the country of Egypt. Therefore, Christmas – the fulfillment of Old Testament events – holds a special meaning for the Egyptian Christian, especially since it was in Egypt that the Holy Family sought safe haven from Herod’s wrath after the birth of Jesus.

Unlike the West, where Christmas is exploited for its material benefits by merchants and advertisers of every persuasion, the feast is recognized in Egypt only by the Christian minority – most of whom are Copts.

The origin of the word “Copt” is the Arabicized, then Europeanized version of the Greek word meaning “Egyptian”. The Copts are proud of the fact that they are descendants of the original Egyptian stock.

Before the Arab invasions in the seventh century, “Coptic” referred to all Egyptians. After the Arab conquest, heavy discriminatory taxes were imposed on the indigent Christians. As a result, many Copts became Moslems to avoid the tariff, and the Christian Church in Egypt shrank significantly in numbers.

Today, Egypt has a population of 34 million, of which 90 percent is Moslem. Christian Copts comprise the largest minority at eight percent.

According to tradition, the origin of the Coptic Church in Egypt goes back to the first century when St. Mark, as an emissary of St. Peter, preached the gospel in Alexandria. That city became a center of Christian learning in which early fathers of the Church such as Origen, Clement, and Dionysius lived, writing and preaching about the faith.

In the fifth century, the Patriarch of Alexandria was deposed by the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that he adhered to what was called the Monophysite heresy, the belief that Jesus was one person from two persons – God and man – but had only one nature. The Catholic view holds that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures – human and divine.

In what was due probably more to a surge of nationalism than a devotion to theology, most Coptic Christians remained loyal to the Patriarch, using the heresy as a support for Egyptian religious independence.

The majority of today’s Copts are Monophysite; there are only about 100,000 Coptic Catholics.

Egyptian Copts, whether Catholic or not, celebrate the feast of Christmas without the glitter, secularism and hustle-bustle which are so often the hallmarks of the Western holyday/holiday.

Christmas in the land of sand and pyramids is as quiet, unpretentious and unhurried as any other day of the year. Except among the more affluent in cities like Cairo, the Copts do not make a huge and expensive show of the feast. Most Copts, for one thing, are very poor. There are no brightly-lit Christmas trees and the exchanging of gifts is not a common practice.

Known for their intensive and closely-knit family life, the Copts begin visiting relatives and friends on Christmas eve. Midnight Mass is the highlight of the feast and is a village affair. On this night the lengthy Coptic Mass is even longer than usual, lasting for hours.

Music in the Coptic Mass, which is unlike any other, is said to echo the temple music of the Pharaohs. On Christmas it is more haunting than ever, with much chanting and singing accompanied by the clanging of cymbals and the jingling of bells and triangles.

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