… but neither am I Scrooge. Well, that could be interpreted as a matter of opinion, as may be seen.
Perhaps many of you are aware that in Egypt, Christmas is celebrated on January 7. I imagine there are deep and profound historical reasons for this, but to date I have not cared particularly enough to research them. Coptic Orthodoxy split apart, or rather was expelled, from the to-become Catholic faith at the time of the Chalcedonian creed, I believe in 451. One of the consequences was a divergence in fixing the celebration of Jesus’ birth, which for early Christians was never regarded with any importance. Easter also became separately marked, though this was of greater import, both biblically and liturgically.
We discovered while living in Jordan that the Christians there created a novel solution. The Coptic and Orthodox branches of Christianity, about evenly split in the country, agreed to celebrate Western Christmas on December 25, and Eastern Easter according to the lunar rites of the Orthodox Church. I would wish that the worldwide church might make such an agreement as well. For our part in America I imagine this would be easy. Ubiquitous Western culture has established December 25 as Christmas even throughout the non-Christian world, and none of us can ever figure out when Easter is going to be anyway. What would be the difficulty in uniting with our Eastern brothers in faith by celebrating Easter according to their calendar? I doubt anyone would even know the difference.
This could be harder for the Orthodox, however, as it could be seen as yielding to the very unchristian culture which surrounds the birth of Jesus. What should stop the Western world, however, from making a unilateral gesture of unity to Orthodoxy by taking up their Easter? Perhaps the Pope could champion this cause from the Catholic side; if he did, would Protestants go along? Or, under what scenario could the initiative emerge from the Protestant community; who might lead us forward? Might any of you propose such a measure this year in your churches? Might you develop a sufficient sense of belonging to the worldwide church so as to contemplate it?
Our sense of belonging to Egypt, however, has created in us a bit of a quandary. When is our Christmas? Most foreigners here simply celebrate December 25 as they always have, and the local expatriate community churches host Christmas Eve services and have times of caroling. For those spending time abroad away from home, certainly this is a welcome reminder of valued traditions.
But it completely misses Egypt. The non-Orthodox Egyptian Christian community is but a small percentage of the millions of Coptic faithful. Again, I lack the history of why and if this was always so, but the Egyptian Catholic and Protestant Churches celebrate Christmas in unity with their brethren, on January 7. Though Jordan also was a predominantly Muslim country, there were still Christmas lights hanging from the windows of Christian apartments and manger scenes set up among the families we would visit. Here, there is nothing. Not only is there no Christmas cheer, but the Orthodox precede Christmas with fifty-five days of fasting. As we went to sleep last night, it was almost eerie to imagine the excitement among children back in America, and the labors of parents to run the gauntlet through that most sacred of national institutions, the mall. Here, save for the sounding of the call to prayer, there is silence.
This is not quite true, however, and it creates a confusion that is quite palpable. The Orthodox are proud of their traditions and history; why then are there so many trappings of Western Christmas? Last Friday at the Orthodox Church we attend was held the annual church bazaar. There were Santa Clauses being sold, wreathes to buy, and a big sign proclaiming, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” Why was this not reversed in order? Are the Egyptians yielding in fact to the inevitability of Western cultural dominance? Or, is there simply no escape?
There is a possible explanation in that this church in particular was consecrated on either December 24th or 25th, and from the coincidence of Christmas the two celebrations blend together. Another explanation is that the Christians also celebrate New Year, and the holiday festivities start early, continue through the end of 2009, and pick up steam as true Christmas approaches. Perhaps, but later this evening we will attend the choir concert at this church, which will feature carols in both Arabic and English. We do not have the benefit of familiarity over time; is this normal, both here and throughout Egypt?
In any case, what should we do? The principles of belonging suggest that we should do as the Egyptians do and celebrate according to their calendar. No one claims that Jesus was actually born on this day, so what does it matter? We also have the benefit of having children young enough not to be traumatized by a different date. We could just ignore the 25th and then let the momentum build in both family and country in expectation of the 7th. Yet if this can be interpreted as the noble solution, what do we do in the face of the ignoble bowings to yuletide found among so many Copts? Do they themselves open our door to the legitimacy of Western celebrations?
Regardless, the noble solution may not be the easiest, or even healthiest. While our children may be able to switch with little difficulty, we ourselves cannot. Furthermore, what of the phone calls back to family in America? These will not stop, but how will they be defined? We have taken to saying, “It is Christmas in America,” but this is forced. I nearly prayed this morning at breakfast, both unconsciously and with a smirk on my face, “Thank you God that Jesus was born in America today.” Of course I will not play with such blasphemy, but is this a duality that can be maintained?
If only for year one in Egypt, we will try to maintain it. Perhaps our children will grow up bragging, “We get to celebrate two Christmases!” Our current solution is to avoid the expatriate church focus on the 25th, in the manner which we generally avoid this church anyway. Still, we will wake on Western Christmas and have a special breakfast, after which we will open our stockings. Before lunch we will participate with other foreign friends by taking a boat ride on the Nile. Later in the day we will call our families to join in their celebrations, and will close the day at the aforementioned Orthodox choir sing. All this will be Christmas, in very nature and being.
Yet it will not be Christmas, amen and amen. Eastern Christmas is still to come. I am not sure what this will entail in terms of participation in the greater life of the Coptic community. For ourselves, though, we will leave the opening of presents until this day, when we will also have a cake to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. Perhaps this suggests that we will treat the 7th as ‘true Christmas’. So be it. We can never leave behind our own culture, nor should we try. Yet we should give ourselves as completely as possible to those we live among, and the sole celebration of the 25th would be tantamount to insisting, “We are not of you, we remain foreigners.” It is doubtful that anyone would care; they expect foreigners to remain so. Yet we hope that if only in a symbolic way some might see our holiday adoption, albeit short of transfer, as an expression of love and appreciation.
The celebration of Christmas, on either the 25th or the 7th, is a celebration of incarnation. The word of God took on flesh, and dwelt among us. Following this pattern, all who follow him can take on the flesh of those they live among. As he remained God, so we will remain American, and all will keep the identity they possess. None of this need be set aside, but so much more can be added. For the good of Egypt, for the good of all the communities in which we live, and for the good of our very souls, may such incarnation take hold.