Christmas Trees, Christmas Parties among Egyptian Muslims

Some 500,000 Christmas trees were sold this year in Egypt, an extremely mysterious statistic. The country’s Orthodox Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7, considers the day distinctly less important than Easter, and does not have a tradition of Christmas trees or Santa Claus. The roughly 8 million Copts are the largest national community of Christians in the Middle East. Admittedly, there are 200,000 uniate Catholics who follow the Pope in Rome but retain their Coptic liturgy (Coptic is a late, Christian-influenced form of the old Pharaonic language of Egypt). But 200,000 is only some 40,000 families or so.

So who is buying the other 460,000 Christmas trees? Well, some are going into the country’s malls (there are now lots of malls, some of them just enormous. I was in the 5-block-long City Stars Mall in Nasr City, Cairo last May, and I swear I got lost. The modern malls put up banners saying Merry Christmas and Happy New Year for their mostly Muslim clientele! And there are a lot of resident Western expatriates in the country working for NGOs, who would buy Christmas trees (last I knew there were 17,000 contractors for US AID). And there are Christian refugees from southern Sudan (about 1 million Sudanese refugees altogether, though the Christians must be a small proportion of them).

Perhaps middle class Copts are going in for the trees in greater numbers. But the Egyptian Muslim middle and upper classes have begun celebrating Christmas, which must account for most of the rest of the Christmas trees. Mohammad El Meshed writes that Osama Abdelshafy told him, ‘ “I have been invited to at least four Christmas parties this year, and three of them are being held by Muslims. This is the first time I’ve felt such a huge emphasis on Christmas.” The Egyptian Muslim middle classes are having Christmas parties and giving gifts.

One of the things Westerners who have only swiftly gone through Egypt as tourists will not appreciate is that Egyptians have the best sense of humor in the Middle East and they love throwing parties.

True, the conservative Muslim clerics advise against commemorating Christmas, and it sends the radicals ballistic for Muslims to do so, but while many Egyptians are pious, they don’t seem to let the puritans get in the way of a good time. And, the radicals were largely repressed and defeated in the Nile Valley by the secular Egyptian state.

The Christians in Egypt face significant civil rights challenges. They often have second class citizen status, and there are occasional attacks on them in the villages of Upper Egypt. This fall al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened strikes on Egyptian Christians, but these threats were rejected by the Egyptian government, which has increased security for churches, and by the Muslim authorities in Egypt such as the Grand Mufti.

But while 2010 was the saddest year for Egyptian Christians in some time, with a major confrontation between a group of them and the state over the building of a church in Giza, a concentration only on doom and gloom and crisis does not give the whole picture.

And, there are revealing ironies. Do more Egyptian Muslims now buy Christmas trees than Egyptian Copts?

11 Responses

  1. You are I believe implying it but not stating it. What they
    are celebrating in Egypt (as in the West were Christmas has broadly
    lost its meaning) is a secular non religious Christmas or I should
    write X-Mas? It has become a day were people don’t work, have fun
    and exchange gifts after having done extensive lists. We are
    witnessing yet another advance of globalization, uniformity and
    mono-culturalism. Happy CHRISTMAS nonetheless prof.

  2. As an American Muslim living in Egypt, I can witness myself that the Muslims here love a good party and don’t seem to care what the reason is for it.

    When I moved here I was pretty surprised to find that my Muslim friends back in the States were more pious than most of the people I had a chance to meet here in Egypt.

    And to be perfectly honest I find it sad. As Muslims we should be happy with what God gave us and in celebrating our own holidays, instead of stealing others, just to have a good time!

  3. Jesus is one of the beloved prophets in Islam. He and Mary are mentioned in the Koran more than 30 times. Why not celebrate his birth.

    • Muslims are ordered to celebrate Jesus Christ (may peace be upon Him) everyday in their lives through following his guidance and morals, as well as those of all prophets and messengers of God Almighty.

      All records of history confirm that Jesus Christ was not born in December. According to the Bible itself (Luke 1:5 through 2:8), Jesus was born in Spring or Summer. According to the Quran, Virgin Mary (may peace be upon Her) ate fresh dates from the palm tree as she gave birth to Him, which indicates it was summer.

      December 25th is a pagan holiday that traces back to the Romans. Why would anyone celebrate it?

      On the other hand, the messenger of God, Mohamed, may peace be upon Him, says in an authentic narration: “God has substituted these (holidays of other nations) with two better holidays for you: Eidul Fitr and Eidul Adha.”

      Celebrating other nations holidays and rituals is a strong sign of weakness and loss of identity of a nation, something that Muslims suffer from in many aspects of their lives.

      • Why wouldn’t anyone celebrate it? The winter solstice is a real, observable phenomenon, and Pagans and Romans are nice people, although there aren’t many Pagan Romans these days.

        • No one said not to celebrate winter, it’s my most favourite season!
          My argument is that the 25th of December has no significance whatsoever except to nations that perished!
          So, please celebrate winter, and all seasons, as you wish! but let’s not follow particular rituals that we don’t even know where they’re from or relate to.

  4. As an academic who knows Arabic (and also Urdu) and studied various Islamic movements you should know better that the prohibition of celebrating non Islamic festivals is not a verdict unique to “radicals” but is common among all Islamic jurists. Jurists have gone as far as condemning Muslims from congratulating non-Muslims on their festivals. Tolerance is one thing and condoning festivals with underlying perceives blasphemous is another.

    Yet doesn’t it seem that we are overestimating Egyptian Muslims celebrating Christmas? besides what are these “Some reports say that around 500,000 Christmas trees will have been sold this year in Egypt by 25 December–”

    what are the sources? besides its a forecast not an actual number so it appears from the article, and we can end the argument here. but for the sake of the argument…

    Aren’t there malls, hotels, beach resorts, restaurants embassies,companies,banks, schools, and various institutions etc, which all buy Xmas trees other than non-Muslim workers in them that buy them, all these places if Egyptian want to appear secular/western.

    I don’t think any Muslim would celebrate Christmas except for a few westernized “middle-high” and “high” class folks, sort of like the people you see in the American University of Cairo who have a hard time speaking in Arabic to start with. and its always a good opportunity for perverted young Egyptian men to get drunk and lucky with the opposite gender.

    other than that the whole Muslim Egyptians escaping puritan wrath and what not is grossly over estimated.

    and on another note what about tyranny of the minority over the majority? where is freedom of religion when the Coptic church kills and detains numerous Copts who converted to Islam including late Kamilia Shehata and the way the church acts as a state within the state ?

    of course western media hardly ever reports such things, but again you know Arabic you should be following Arab media.

    much more could be said but this post is very biased :)

    • For years and years a leading Islamic institute in the UK
      attempted to conduct some kind of annual seminar to discuss how to
      improve relations between the Muslim community and the rest of
      society. Something that should be quite a high priority, given the
      current state of things, one would have thought. A long-standing
      employee of this institute informed me that for year after year,
      overbearing individuals from a certain Gulf state showed up and
      turned the whole thing into a debate about Christmas Cards.
      Christmas cards. It would appear that their experience of British
      society consists almost entirely of what they see in shopping
      malls, but nonetheless with their wealth and status they know
      what’s best for the rest of us. Then they go home to their high
      walled villas and big empty desks and interminable medical
      treatment. We have allowed ourselves to be influenced by such
      bone-headed cretins – who have no concept of social reality social
      justice – or just about any social issue whatsoever. Without which
      guidance is high-on impossible. Muslims in Britain have courted
      disaster. To be fair, the vast majority have not preached any kind
      of political or violent extremist – but their selective and utterly
      un-nuanced jurisprudence, obsessed with the external manifestations
      of idolatry and nothing else, has opened the doors for those who
      have. If they didn’t have the money they would been dismissed as
      insignificant.

  5. ahh should have said it from the very begging as you did Dr,
    it is indeed “an extremely mysterious statistic” more like far fetched :)

  6. I can understand a sense of missing out in Europe or in the USA – particularly when children are involved. Outside of the Muslim world there is no real “sense” of ‘Eid – so Muslim children brought up here only really experience an all-permeating festive atmosphere in the Christmas build up.
    Too many people from the Arab world have tried to impress on me how European they are. I personally believe that societies can be externally influenced and change in ways that do not lead them into discarding who they really are – but to do this requires secure and autonomous individuals who evaluate. Something the Muslims should be good at, even if some Westerners don’t like it. Imitating because it is some kind of must-have fashion item is an entirely different thing. I suspect it is largely commercially driven. And as regards that – the overwhelming festive feel of TV ads in the UK disappears completely on Christmas Eve because they are no more shopping days left. As soon as you get to the very thing they’ve been banging on about for the last two months, they want you to focus on something else. It might make commercial sense, but it’s actually slightly shocking. They need to respect their own traditions a bit more. Not something worth following here.

    I agree with Emme. They should do themselves, and other Muslims trying to retain their identity in the West a favour by making Eid something really special. It really is a bit sad.

Comments are closed.