For about 1,800 years in our common era, the Coptic Church has maintained a distinct identity separate from Catholicism, all forms of Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and of course, Evangelicalism.
In relation to the version of Christianity you are more likely to come by, Copts have a different appreciation of Jesus Christ’s life and totally different theological conceptions.
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Historically persecuted by Muslims in the Middle East and even in countries with “mainstream” Christian majorities, these churches have, however, stood the test of time.
The Coptic Church of Egypt, being the oldest of the orthodoxies, tends to be the reference point for understanding this great Christian tradition.
Like with Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is marked by all Christians except for probably, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But Christmas is also the farthest the Coptic Church stands apart from other Christians in marking religious calendar festivities.
For starters, Copts have their Christmas 13 days from December 25 – January 7. This date works to the Julian calendar (used by the Copts) that pre-dates the Gregorian calendar used by much of the world.
The calendars shape the Easter holidays too. The Coptic Church’s Easter Sunday is one week further from when Catholics and Protestants mark theirs.
About 15 million Copts in Egypt decorate their homes and enter the spirit of joy and renewal when Christmas comes around. It is very much like any other Christian would do.
Speaking to Ncronline.com in 2018, high school principal Ne’mat al-Qumos described the preparation: “We make our own papier-mâché scenes of the Grotto of Christmas as a symbol of the holy infant who was born poor in a cave.”
Jesus was not born in a wooden manger, surrounded by animals. For the Copts, it was a cave.
There are other differences in the Coptic nativity story. For instance, Herod was not looking for Jesus in that baby hunt; he was looking for John the Baptist.
The Magi, or Three Wise Men, were of course magicians who were also astrologers. But when they saw the Baby Jesus, they gave up on magic and even left behind their tools.
The Coptic Christmas story also holds that Jesus was already performing miracles even as a baby and taming wild animals. He even healed the Magi who were blind.
There is also the part which claims that while the holy family was on its way to Egypt, they took along a nurse named Salome. They are said to have spent four years in Egypt – pretty much Jesus’ teething years.
Jesus’ connection to Egypt is unsurprisingly cherished by Copts. Indeed, at Abu Serghis in Egypt, there is a church from the 4th Century which claims to have been situated exactly where Jesus’ family settled.
In the run-up to January 7, Copts hold a 43-day fast, even avoiding food products that come from animals. This is meant to cleanse one’s soul in preparation for renewal.
Then the people sing Kiahk tunes on Saturday evenings in the month prior to Christmas. But afterward, feasting happens.
A Coptic dish special to Christmas called fatta, is served. It consists of rice, bread, and boiled beef.
The children also expect Baba Noel, or Father Christmas, to come through with his gifts. He has to have something for every child, especially the special kahk treat.