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?