Coptic Easter: How Egypt celebrates the rising of Christ

While Coptic fasting time is unequalled in any other Christian community, with a total of 210 days in 365,

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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♦This feature was first published in Al Arabiya English in April, 2015. It is being republished in the aftermath of Sunday’s deadly bombings of two Coptic churches in Egypt which have left dozens dead and many more injured♦

Coptic Easter, which falls on the Sunday following the full moon that comes after the vernal equinox (March 21), is one of the two most important holy days for Egyptian Christians, the other being Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7. Coptic Easter marks the end of the 55-day Lent, commonly known as the Great Fast, where all animal products - including milk, cheese and butter - are prohibited.

While Coptic fasting time is unequalled in any other Christian community, with a total of 210 days in 365, the pre-Easter fast is the longest. That is why the feasting that follows it is the most remarkable in Egyptian Coptic culture.

On Easter eve or Holy Saturday, which falls this year on April 11, Coptic Christians start their Easter Vigil, also known as The Great Vigil, which lasts until the dawn of Easter. It is preferable for those who can to fast completely - that is, abstain from food and drink - on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and break the fast upon the end of Mass.

The Easter Eve ceremony includes a symbolic reenactment of Christ’s ascension, also called the “resurrection play.” The play shows the gates of heaven closed following Adam’s sin and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lights are turned off to symbolize the darkness humanity lived in before the advent of Christ. The light that follows indicates that Christ has risen and was able to open the gates of heaven, thus cleansing humanity from the original sin.

The prayers are recited in Coptic and Arabic. All Egyptian Christians, including those not familiar with the Coptic language, know by heart the sentence repeated on that night: “Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen).

Easter day is known for the banquets that Coptic families prepare to break their long fast. The food served is not very different from that commonly consumed during the two main Islamic holidays. Like the Lesser Bairam, cookies and biscuits are purchased or home-baked, and like the Greater Bairam, meat and Egyptian fatteh (rice with crispy flatbread). Buying new clothes is also a tradition shared by Coptic and Islamic holidays as well as family reunions.

Easter day is followed by Spring Day, also known as Sham al-Nessim in Arabic, which is celebrated by all Egyptians but has a special place in Coptic culture. The Arabic name is originally Coptic: “shoum in nissim,” meaning “the garden of crops.” Spring Day is an ancient Egyptian festival celebrated at the beginning of spring.

When Egypt became Christian in the fourth century BC, Spring Day used to fall in the middle of the Great Fast, making Egyptians unable to enjoy the feast linked to the ancient holiday and the accompanying festivities they are supposed to abstain from during the fast. They therefore decided to celebrate Spring Day the day after Easter. Ever since, Spring Day has become the Monday following Easter Sunday.

Although Copts treat Spring Day as an extension of Easter, the former is marked by special rituals more linked to the ancient Egyptian celebration such as eating salted mullet, green onions and lupin in public parks. The coloring of eggs is similarly ancient Egyptian, with the hatching process being a symbol of life coming out of a lifeless object, which was then analogous to the growing of crops and spring as the season of fertility.

In the Christian tradition, eggs came to be associated with the rising of Christ from his tomb, and red became the preferred color for painting eggs to symbolize His blood, a tradition still followed by Copts.

As Easter approaches, Copts are speculating over whether President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will attend Mass as he did on Coptic Christmas, an action that was applauded by most Copts as a step toward more tolerance and as a means of assuaging fears of sectarian discrimination that accompanied the Islamist rule of Mohamed Mursi.

In addition to inviting the president and the prime minister according to protocol, Coptic Archbishop Sergius Sergius said 7,000 invitations for Easter Mass have been sent: “Ministers, governors and other state officials are included in the invitations. We should invite the parliament speaker as well but there is none at the moment.”

During Mursi’s rule, the church only invited the president, prime minister and parliament speaker. Analysts saw this as the church’s way of evading the embarrassment of receiving many rejections from the mostly Islamist political scene at the time.

Some Copts opted to spend Easter and the entire Holy Week in Jerusalem to follow the path of Christ in the days that preceded the crucifixion. Around 1,300 Copts flew from Cairo Airport to Tel Aviv for the eight-day pilgrimage that should include the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows - through which Jesus carried the cross on his way to crucifixion - as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also called the Church of Resurrection, and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.

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