Egyptian-American Coptic Christian Woman Celebrates Christmas with Renewed Meaning: An Interview with Monica Youssef
Pope Shenuda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, leads the Coptic Christmas midnight mass in Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Every January 7th in accordance with the Julian calendar, Coptic Orthodox Christians in North America celebrate the holiday of Christmas. But this sacred time is filled with solemnity, mourning, and fear — and also a deepening resolve and hope — for many Copts one week after the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt killed 21 worshippers.
Copts are the largest religious minority in Egypt, making up nine percent of the country’s population the BBC reports, and are considered by many scholars to be direct descendants of Egyptians from the time of Jesus.
But more than one-quarter of Coptic Christians live in the rest of the world. And hundreds of Coptic churches can be found in the United States, including Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in the suburb of South Saint Paul in Minnesota. We asked Monica Youssef, a 20-year old member of this parish who is president of the University of Minnesota Coptic Orthodox Christian Association, to reflect on this year’s Orthodox Christmas celebration.
Could you share a bit about your personal experience in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Where you grew up? How you came to the faith? What is it like to be a Coptic Christian in the United States?
Both of my parents came to the U.S. from Egypt about 25 years ago. They met and got married in Pennsylvania, and then moved to St. Paul so my father could study for his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. My older brother John, younger sister Mary, and I were all born here in St. Paul and have lived here our whole lives.
My father and mother have always been very faithful Coptic Christians, and have raised us all in the same manner. We were baptized in the Church a few months after being born, following one of the sacraments of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This love for our faith has flourished within us to such a degree that being a Coptic Christian has now become the essence of our lives.
It’s funny though, not many people may even know that about me — except for when January 7th or a week in April comes around, where my response to all of my friends is, “Gotta go to church!” And I get questions like, “You celebrate Christmas twice? Lucky!” or “A 10-hour service? How is that even possible?” I always enjoy sharing my faith with others who have never heard of it, or even some who just want a personal viewpoint. On the other hand, it’s always so much fun to connect with other Coptic youth across the U.S. at conventions or retreats that are held throughout the year in several different states. It’s as if we are all one big family, even if we’ve never met — the almost identical lifestyles, beliefs, and values we share are one the many reasons why it is a joy to be a Copt.
A man looks behind a curtain in front of the altar room at the Coptic Markus church in Frankfurt, Germany during Christmas celebrations. (photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
Today is Christmas within the Coptic Church. Most of us know very little about your faith tradition, including that Christmas is celebrated at a different time than most Christians celebrate the holiday in the United States. Could you describe some of the rituals and festivities that you and your family celebrate at your home and at your local church?
In one way we get to celebrate Christmas twice. Having the 25th off from work and school is always a great time to get together with family and friends in the spirit of the season. But it is actually January 7th where we celebrate the true meaning of Christmas — the glorious birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is because the Copts go by the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar (which is used throughout the world today).
The festivities actually start to begin around the second week of December (or the beginning of the Coptic month Kiahk), where churches across the globe offer their hearts to God singing a selection of praises and spiritual songs which are central to the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and are so called “Kiahk Praises”.
Then on January 6th, Copts gather at church in the evening and pray the Holy Liturgy that goes up to midnight. The end of the Nativity fast, in which we abstain from dairy, meats, and poultry, is marked upon receiving the blood and body of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrament of communion (occurring around midnight).
Tons of “Happy feast!” greetings are passed along to one another, as Copts leave the church and head home to partake in the first meal of meats, cheeses, eggs, and chicken — typically prepared in a traditional Egyptian manner. Soon, everyone becomes tired and then sleeps to reenergize for the next day of celebration. Church members gather again at church the next day to celebrate Christmas together; this usually is just a social hour with some food. Because Christmas is fixed to January 7th and may fall during the week, it is the following Sunday where church members hold a special Christmas program of singing, skits/plays, and a dinner after the Holy Liturgy. Kids get presents, hundreds of the same pictures are taken from several different cameras, and smiles are spread all over.
You mentioned the phrase “Happy feasts!” is offered in Arabic. Could you share the transliteration so I could share it with our readers? Oh, the transliteration in Arabic is either “Kola sana wenta tayeb!” (to a male) or “Kola sana wentee tayeba!” (to a female).
Monica Youssef and friend at Christmas mass in South Saint Paul, Minnesota.
You’re attending the University of Minnesota right now, correct? Is there a Coptic community at the university that you’ve become friends with?
The Copts that I know there are my friends that I have grown up with at church, actually, so before a member of my church enters the University of Minnesota, he/she already has a few friends there. This is because there is only one Coptic Church within Minnesota, and it is located in South St. Paul. So, because all of us are centralized at one location, we all know each other fairly well.
We are a registered student group, Coptic Orthodox Christian Association, where we gather once a month and discuss a spiritual topic. We are now incorporating regular volunteer activities within the community.
What impact has the New Year’s Eve bombings in Alexandria, Egypt had on your personal Coptic community (at school or outside of school)?
In one aspect, the bombing in Alexandria is heart-wrenching. Even if we do not know those killed or injured, I know that both others and I alike feel as though our own family was hurt. The Coptic community across the globe shares a way of life similar to one another. By and large, we talk, look, and pray like one another, whether in Egypt, Australia, Europe, or the U.S. Seeing the film of the bomb impact at the end of the service was terrifying. It almost looked like the church that I have attended my whole life.
Before midnight mass at Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo, Egyptian Coptic Christians hold a banner reading, “Our church is always for martyrs, free people not afraid of death.” (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
This event happened just short of the first-year anniversary of six Copts killed in a shooting after the Coptic Christmas liturgy on January 7, 2010 in a city of Egypt called Nag Hammadi. Our Church aches because of the innocent suffering of our brothers and sisters in Egypt, and it is happening at a time where we should be celebrating the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, in no way do we lose heart or faith. Such an event has strengthened our prayers as we lift our hearts to God asking for His mercy and for peace in the world. We learn from these martyrs that our lives are with God, and that at any moment we too may be face to face with death.
Sudanese Coptic priests celebrate Christmas midnight mass at Khartoum’s Virgin Mary Church. (photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
For me, personally, this devastation has strengthened my faith, and I trust that He will deliver His people and justice will be served according to His will — whether on Earth or in heaven:
“I will love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; So shall I be saved from my enemies.” (Ps. 18:3)
My God is compassionate, merciful, and loving God, and I know that He hears the cries of His children. Our faith and our trust can only be confirmed in Our Lord.
“The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, A refuge in times of trouble. And those who know Your name will put their trust in You; For You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You. Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion! Declare His deeds among the people. When He avenges blood, He remembers them; He does not forget the cry of the humble.” (Ps. 9:9-12)
We know that there is a problem, but now is the time for us to come together as one soul, and one body, and offer our hearts to God. He is the only one, in a time like this, who can intercede on our behalves, help us, protect and save us, and avenge our troubles.
“Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; Their foot shall slip in due time; For the day of their calamity is at hand, And the things to come hasten upon them.” (Deut. 32:35)
Both Copts and Muslims in Egypt took to the streets in protest this month. Have you always been aware of that tension or is this the first time you’ve seen it in such a public display?
Similar protests occurred throughout the U.S. and Canada after the shooting in Nag Hammadi last year. It is right for us to voice that such treatment in Egypt is wrong, but I do not agree with this manner. It is true, this tragedy has devastated each and every one of us, but as a priest in Egypt has recently said in light of these attacks, “If you want to state your opinion, state it, but in a calm and peaceful manner. God has taught us to fight Satan, to fight evil, with prayer. We pray to God in our churches, not in the streets.”
Can you describe how you felt watching the funeral procession on Egyptian television?
I couldn’t hold my tears. I saw casket by casket by casket lined up before clergy, who were praying on them. A sight like that is mortifying but truly causes each Copt to pray harder. Those killed are our brothers and sisters. We must remember that although their lives on Earth may be over, Heaven is rejoicing for the arrival of 21 martyrs. This is our faith: our lives on Earth are a mere glimpse compared to our eternal lives. It is a reminder that we must work towards obtaining that eternal life with Our Father.
An Egyptian Coptic Christian woman looks up during a Christmas midnight mass at Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
What particular ritual, song, icon, or a moment during Christmas services or a distinct family tradition might resonate more deeply and intimately with you during this season?
I, personally, always get so caught up in the particular feast day that we may be celebrating — whether Christmas or Easter — and I sometimes overlook the meaning of the holiday, becoming so overjoyed with the holiday’s arrival itself. This year, I feel as though it’ll be the exact opposite. The aura among the Coptic Christian Church, worldwide, is still somewhat shaken. Many congregations will be walking into churches with security, police officials, or other protective measures taken that are extremely out of the ordinary. But the beauty about the Coptic Church is the strong faith of its believers.
So this Christmas, each service and each tradition will be taken wholeheartedly to such a greater depth than years past. Every word to be prayed throughout the holy liturgy will resonate within our hearts, will strengthen our prayers, and will fill us with a heavenly and glorious joy. The greetings at church will be with such warmth and love, and time spent with family will prove itself more precious and more valuable than ever before.
This Christmas, we’ll truly be connected as one family, one body, through our gracious and perfect Father. As His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and the leader of the Coptic Church has said, “We will celebrate Christ’s birth no matter the circumstances or problems we face.”
“Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
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