Coptic Christmas: Food and traditions for an Orthodox celebration

Coptic Christmas: Food and traditions for an Orthodox celebration

Coptic Christmas: Food and traditions for an Orthodox celebration

Have a hearty Coptic Christmas on January 7th! The image is used for illustrative purposes only
Image credit: Shutterstock

First of all, why is Christmas celebrated on January 7 in certain countries, including Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Ethiopia and Egypt?

The reason is the decision of the Orthodox or the second largest Christian church to adhere to the 2,000-year-old Julian calendar. It is a solar calendar that Julius Caesar had adopted after consulting an Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes. However, a problem arose as Sosigenes’ calculation had apparently gone about 11 minutes away, leading to challenges in observing holidays for Christians. As a solution, the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, which is followed by Christians in most parts of the world. Thus, there is a 13-day interval between Christmas, which is celebrated by most Christians on December 25 and January 7 by Orthodox Christians.

Unique traditions and rituals

Orthodox Christmas falls on the fourth month of the Coptic calendar, which corresponds to the Julian calendar.

Coptic Christmas

Maria Zaki with her family
Photo credit: Included

“We call it the Kiahk month, which falls between December 10 and January 7, according to the Coptic calendar. This month is about preparing for Christmas … celebrating the birth of Jesus. It is a month filled with prayers, hymns and daily visit to the church.Christmas Eve (January 6) we go to church and start praying from 18.00 onwards, which culminates with the midnight mass at 12, explains the Egyptian based Maria Zaki.The Orthodox Christmas is in contrast to how Christmas is celebrated on December 25. Even the hymns for the Orthodox Christmas are different, almost completely vocal without the use of instruments except the Pharaonic daf and trianto.

Also for UAE-based Serbian expatriate Milica Vukelic, Christmas is marked by a set of unique traditions. In Serbia, non-seated liturgies in the church and burning bath jackets or tree branches are central to the Christmas celebration. The Badnjak ritual is supposed to represent the scene where shepherds brought a tree to start a fire and warm the cave where Jesus was born.

“On Christmas Eve, especially in Serbian villages, men go into the woods to bring logs / branches of a young oak tree, which we call badnjak. It is brought in front of the home and burned in the fireplace as a belief in blessing the house. In cities, when the square “We used to buy small branches of badnjak from shops, take it to the church, where it is burned after the Christmas Eve Mass. My father would take some of the badnjak home before Christmas Eve dinner,” Vukelic recalled.

Fasting and partying

Coptic Christmas

A traditional Christmas food
Image credit: Supplied / Maria Zaki

Fasting before the Feast is another unique tradition among Orthodox Christians. “When there’s a party, we have to fast, even if it’s for a day,” Zaki declared. “Before holidays such as Christmas and Easter, we fast for 43 and 55 days, respectively, and abstain from meat, eggs, dairy products and much more. Although the church is flexible about how we fast, some people who are very spiritual do not eat anything from midnight to noon. 15:00 to 17:00 the next day. ”

While the fasting period is similar in Serbia, for many families like Vukelic’s it is a matter of choice. “Even though we do not fast throughout the period, we do the day before Christmas. During the fasting period, we consume more nutritious food consisting of fruits and vegetables as opposed to fasting hero. We also abstain from meat, eggs and dairy products. “The fasting period is followed by celebration.” On Christmas day we have a traditional spread consisting of mezze, sarma (pickled cabbage filled with meat), kidney beans, cheese pie, ajvar (peeled, chopped paprika cooked in oil) and proja (cornmeal bread) .My grandmother often remembers how during World War II they could only afford to eat proja, so in that sense it is a super traditional Serbian food and best to have with sarma.

Here is a recipe for making Serbian proja.

Coptic Christmas

Proja or cornmeal bread
Image credit: Delivered / Milica Vukelic

“Our gala dinner starts after the Christmas Eve Mass,” Zaki added. “Usually mothers prepare for the festive dinner from the morning of January 6th. Since people fast for more than a month, Christmas Eve dinner tends to be light and easily digestible. It consists mainly of fatta (toast, rice and meat with soup), boiled eggs and cheese. Christmas Day food is more festive including fried chicken and macaroni in bechamel sauce. While the type of meat may vary, Christmas food is usually the same in Egypt for all Orthodox Christians. “

Here’s a recipe for making fatta.

Coptic Christmas

Image credit: Delivered / Milica Vukelic

When Zaki was asked if there was any salad, he laughed and said, “Not on Christmas day, because at that point we are tired of having greens.” While artful desserts are not made for Christmas, kahk or traditional Egyptian biscuits are always served.

An integral part of the Christmas celebration is that the family gathers. While Christmas Eve dinner is eaten with the immediate family, the Christmas Day lunch involves extended family and friends, both Zaki and Vukelic shared.

“In our family, my late mother wanted to make the dinner table, and when my father came home with a bathing suit after the midnight mass, we threw some nuts, corn and wheat at him and welcomed him like Santa Claus. Then we walked around the dinner table three times and sang. beans.My mother then threw walnuts around four corners of the kitchen and kept it all year as a sign of protection.While we sat for dinner, she also sprinkled on the floor with some corn, wheat and walnuts, which lasted for three days, “And then we started dinner. After Dad came into the house, no one was allowed to come in before Christmas morning,” Vukelic recalled.

“On Christmas morning we are visited by our polozajnik, usually a small child from the family who visits the home as a warning of happiness and blessings. The child also burns a small branch of badnjak and sings blessings, after which we serve him breakfast and give some gifts. Then we start celebrating Christmas with family and friends. For dinner, my mother used to bake bread and fill some little things like coins and wheat. When we broke the bread, it showed us how our years would go. It’s more a fun than a serious tradition, ”she added.

Coptic Christmas

Polozajnik, a small child from the family who visits the home as a warning of happiness and blessings
Image credit: Delivered / Milica

Meanwhile, Christmas Day for Zaki is always about gathering in the home of the oldest family member, either at the home of her father or at her husband’s aunt. “We eat lunch together or sometimes even snacks consisting of milk / tea / coffee with kahk.”

Celebrations galore

Coptic Christmas

Serbian Christmas Eve dinner
Image credit: Delivered / Milica Vukelic

In addition to rituals and food, the Christmas celebration includes buying and wearing new clothes, gift exchanges, visits from family, friends and even spending time with the less fortunate.

“As children, we used to be excited to wear new clothes for Christmas and wait for Eidiyah, which is a sign of money that the elderly give to younger people. Some people also write special messages on smaller banknotes like EGP1 or 5 to be kept as a memento. When I was young, I used my Eidiyah to buy sweets and all that was pretty much forbidden all year round. We also used to decorate the Christmas tree. While we were growing up, we used to be happy to celebrate see our gifts under the tree, but we knew it was from my father, “said Zaki. Her three children, however, expect gifts from Santa or Baba Noel as popularly known in Egypt. It is interesting that Santa cared and still visits churches in Egypt Christmas Day morning to hand out presents to children, which is one of Zaki’s fond memories.

We even buy gifts for New Year’s Eve and not for Christmas. And Santa Claus is also coming to visit on New Year’s Eve

– Milica Vukelic

A unique celebration in Serbia is to bring out the Christmas tree and decorate the new year. “We even buy gifts for New Year’s Eve and not for Christmas. And Santa Claus is also coming to visit on New Year’s Eve, ”laughed Vukelic. Although not related to Christmas, another interesting tradition in Serbia is that every family has a patron saint. “Ours is Saint George, and we celebrate Saint George’s Day with prayers and feasts. If it falls on Wednesday or Friday, we follow fasting rituals that do not serve meat on the day, even if it is a feast.”

Zaki pointed out how the festivities have changed since the pandemic, saying: “Churches were closed last year and prayers were said virtually. While eating Christmas meals in our respective homes, we came in video calls with family members to get a glimpse of the gathering. Even gifts were given to the children, but at a distance. “

For Vukelic, who has been celebrating Christmas Day in the UAE for the past seven years, it’s more like a normal day. “But I’m trying to have dinner with friends that day,” she concluded.

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