Amidst Egypt's political turmoil and the recent approval of the country's draft constitution, millions of Christians across Egypt are preparing to celebrate Christmas as usual this year under the shadow of Islamist rule.
Egypt's churches have invited all the Copts to attend the celebrations as usual, and Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Church, has urged all Copts inside and outside Egypt to celebrate Christmas despite a sometimes tense political atmosphere.
Pope Tawadros said that the anniversary of the attacks against the Copts at Christmas time over the past two years in Alexandria and Nagaa Hammadi should not lead to fears during this festive season. He asked the clergy of all churches to celebrate together in order to express Christian joy and strongly encouraged all Copts to attend church on Christmas Eve.
To celebrate Christmas, the St Nicholas Church in Banha has been holding services under the auspices of Bishop Maximus, the Coptic bishop of Banha and Quesna, which have included a daily mass, hymns for the Coptic month of Kiahk and praise of St Nicholas and other saints, as well as exhibitions of the Bible and images of the Holy Family.
Elsewhere, the celebrations have included daily masses given by Bishop Qozman, bishop of North Sinai, Bishop Daniel, bishop of Bishop Bola Monastery, Bishop Daniel, bishop of Maadi, and Bishop Dawoud, bishop of Mansoura.
St Nicholas is the real person behind the legendary character of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, who traditionally gives children gifts on Christmas Eve. The origins of the story began when a rich man lost all his wealth and became a pauper, his three daughters being led into temptation by the devil in order to help him back to prosperity.
God revealed the man's story to Nicholas, the bishop of the city, who threw a bag of money through the window of the man's house. The man was overjoyed and was able to marry off his eldest daughter. When Nicholas did the same thing again, he was able to marry off his second daughter. The third time, the man wanted to find out the identity of his benefactor, and when he discovered it was Nicholas he knelt at his feet in gratitude.
The church in Banha is the only Coptic church in Egypt named after St Nicholas, and it belonged to the Greek Orthodox sect until Bishop Maximus, the archbishop of Qalioubiya, bought it, the late Pope Shenouda III signing the deed in 1980.
This Christmas, enhanced security measures have been put in place at churches in Egypt, including the installation of additional security barricades and special guards, as well as surveillance cameras and X-ray machines.
Coptic churches will begin mass on Christmas Eve at 7pm, and this will be followed by traditional gift-giving. The services will end at dawn the next day. One Church source told Al-Ahram Weekly that there was no truth in rumours that Christmas celebrations could be cancelled because of the political turmoil or out of fear of sectarian attacks.
The source said that all Christian churches had a variety of programmes planned to celebrate Christmas, including giving children gifts. Many Coptic families have said they will celebrate Christmas in Egypt no matter the circumstances because they believe that festivities in Egypt have a special flavour. Pope Tawadros's decision to celebrate the occasion has added to their enthusiasm.
Monica Mena Morcos, a secondary school student, said that most families were likely to decorate Christmas trees and their homes in order to help forget the tense political situation that has been reigning in Egypt. "People are fed up and want to rejoice," Morcos added.
Mina Magdi, 40, an employee at an oil company, said that he intended to celebrate Christmas "at a resort on the Red Sea with my wife and nine-year-old daughter. I bought a Santa Claus figure for my daughter and some toys with flashing lights."
George Al-Qoms, an engineering student, said that "political tensions will not affect my family's celebrations of Christmas or New Year. It comes once a year, and everyone wants to go to church on this glorious day. We are confident that this will be a day of joy and ask the Lord to give Egypt peace and love and protect it against subversive currents."
Irenie Wagdi declared that "as Copts we do not know fear, but we do not like trouble and tension. I believe Copts will gather at churches this year more than in previous years. We should not be fearful, despite threats by extremists to prevent our celebration of Christmas."
Barbara Al-Qoms Maqar said that "political and other events do not affect the Church and its celebrations because the Church's festivities are spiritual and include prayers and mass. Celebrating the birth of Christ must take place no matter what. It cannot be cancelled."
Vivian Fakhri, an employee in a private-sector company, said that she was overjoyed to be able to celebrate Christmas with her friends and family. Fakhri said that the political events would not affect her celebration of Christmas and the New Year.
Amy Aziz, 29, and the mother of two, said she intended to decorate her home to celebrate Christmas, but that she would be discrete because of fears of lax security on the streets and the incidents that had taken place during the referendum on the constitution.
Vendors have started to sell the latest decorations, and the entrances of hotels, malls and shops have been decorated with Christmas trees. Shops have also been seeing increased sales during the holiday season.
Michael Safwat, a shopworker, said that lasers were the latest decorative fad this year, along with strings of glass decorations and a Santa Claus that talks and tells stories. Several other new products made an appearance this year, including decorative bells and baubles.
Sami Adel, who owns a shop selling Christmas gifts, said that he would like to see as many people as possible buying Christmas decorations. Adel said that sales were down this year, and he hoped that people would set aside their concerns about politics in order to celebrate.
Awni Aziz, a salesman in a clothing shop, said that customers enjoyed looking in the windows because of the Christmas decorations and that many appeared to be more interested in the shop's Christmas tree than in its merchandise.
The Christmas tree tradition dates back to mediaeval times in Germany. The first person to decorate a Christmas tree is said to be St Boniface, who brought Christianity to Germany and asked people to cut down a pine tree as an expression of gratitude for the birth of Christ.
The custom spread and became popular in other countries, with Britain's Queen Victoria encouraging her husband, the German prince Albert, to plant a Christmas tree inside her palace. People began decorating and lighting Christmas trees at the end of the 19th century.
Poinsettias are also a staple of Christmas decorations because of their rich red colour and height. The plant has many branches and a short stem with wide triangular leaves. It blooms in winter at the beginning of December.
By Michael Adel
Assyrian International News Agency