Living in a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East provides an unusual vantage point for the Christmas season. On one hand, this is the true land of Christmas in a sense. The Holy Family is said to have spent its early years in Egypt, and the path of their travels is marked in a series of churches throughout Egypt. The Coptic Church is the oldest Christian church tracing its heritage back to the apostle St. Mark. The religious aspect of the holiday is real and close in the countryside of Egypt. The flocks of sheep are grazing on the drying shores of the Sacred Lake at Dahshur, but not too many shepherds are likely to be sitting out watching flocks in December. The winds off the desert are icy. The camels that carried the Magi to Bethlehem rest after carrying their loads of palm branches to be fashioned into furniture or crates with an emerald pile of winter clover in front of them. We will see them slouching across the desert carrying pilgrims to pay a respectful homage to pyramids that were ancient when Christ was born.
Most of the customs of my childhood feel somewhat out of place here. Snowmen and evergreens are not the inhabitants of the eastern Sahara. Songs about white Christmases, chestnuts roasting on open fires, and Santa Claus don't really make much sense. The sweet potato man has been plying the roadside through the villages lately selling his seasonal roast sweet potatoes to warm the fingers of the chilled fellaheen (and anyone else with a taste for them and their crackling crusty skin). He will vanish again once the evenings return to their usual balmy temperatures in March. For those who are doing Santa's secular work and seeking out the perfect present, there is a series of Christmas bazaars that provide the opportunity to support any sort of charity, but the mad buying frenzy of the holiday season isn't really seen here.
My husband never did see the point of Christmas shopping and Christmas presents. His attitude was that if someone really wanted or needed something, why should there be this wait until the middle of winter? And all of this peace on earth stuff? If it wasn't going to happen in February, why was it important in December? I used to sniff and call him Grinch, but over the years I've grown to understand his point of view better. The Muslim population has its more intense season of charity during the month of Ramadan when many organizations push their charitable appeals at a time when the general population is very attuned to charity. Appeals are also pushed during the Christmas season, for why overlook another group just because of religious bias? Sensible, I believe, and when with the passage of time Ramadan and Christmas are at a six-month distance, it spreads out the giving through the year.
In Egypt Christmas is the feast celebrating the birth of the second most important prophet in the history of mankind, Jesus. For Muslims, he holds a great importance such that he was never killed in the Crucifixion but was carried alive to God. Even Mohamed was just a man who died and was buried. Believing that Allah is not in man's image and thus cannot have a child, Muslims can't believe that Jesus was the son of God. No one could be the son of God because God is something that cannot be comprehended by us mere mortals. I don't see that this is much of a demotion.
Egyptians are flexible about their Christmas as well. For the Europeans, they celebrate it on December 24th and 25th, while for the Copts and the Eastern Orthodox churches it is also celebrated on January 7th. Likewise, we celebrate Easter twice and then on the Monday after the Coptic Easter we celebrate Sham El Nessim, the ancient pharoanic feast of springtime. Scholars say that when the early church leaders were establishing their holy days, they found it useful to place them at times of the year that were already being celebrated in similar fashions. Thus, the old feasts that marked the returning of the longer days to the earth changed from being feasts that celebrated the sun to feasts that celebrated the Son. Perhaps the secret of the pyramids is that they've seen everything come and go so many times that they know that only a few things really matter. As I've tried to remind myself while slogging through slush in New York to be crushed in yet another overfilled bookstore, it isn't the presents that matter but the presence of love and care for others, regardless of the holiday.
Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season, whatever holidays you may be celebrating.