How is Epiphany Celebrated Culturally Around the Arab Christian World?
By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer
January 6, 2021, is the holiday of Epiphany in the Arab Christian world. Perhaps, you are asking, what is Epiphany, do we know it by other names? How is it celebrated? Epiphany is the holiday in Arab Christianity that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River and the appearance of the Holy Spirit. Epiphany is also known as Three Kings’ Day, Twelfth Night, or even Theophany in many cultures. We will now be embarking on a journey to explore the cultural customs and festivities of how Epiphany is celebrated around the Arab Christian world.
Epiphany is celebrated in numerous different ways, but the common festivities include water activities, baptismal rites (as the above picture shows), and house blessings.
Moreover, the holiday is remembered not only by the ceremonial church services but also by the sweets prepared for this occasion, mainly dough fried in different shapes (Zalabieh/Awwameh/Moshabbak). In addition, usually, pancakes get stuffed with nuts, sugar, and cinnamon and are also fried in the shape of a half-moon (Katayef). They all get dipped in homemade syrup to signifying the dipping of Christ in the Jordan River for baptism. This tradition is mainly practiced in the Levante region.
It is now time to embark on our journey to learn about the traditions of this exciting holiday. We will be exploring the cultural customs of the Arab Christian Orthodox, Catholics, and some of the religious minorities as well within the Arab world. To start off our journey, we will learn about the traditions of Orthodox Arab Christians.
Orthodox Arab Christians:
Egyptian Coptics, Antiochian Orthodox, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches:
Egyptian Coptic Christians:
To mark the beginning of our journey, we are heading to Egypt to learn how the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany. The Egyptian Copts celebrate Epiphany in a more solemn way than other cultures do in that they emphasize a day of strict fasting, blessings of the waters and houses, and perform numerous baptisms.
The interesting piece in how Egyptian Copts celebrate Epiphany is that it is sometimes more aligned with the traditions of Good Friday that take place before Easter. Epiphany is typically seen as a more joyous holiday since some cultures have parades, visits of three magi, and baptismal reenactments, but within the Egyptian Coptic sect, it is celebrated through a spirit of reflection, contemplation, and revelation. Finally, at the end of the house blessings, there is a celebration that takes place for eight days called the Afterfeast where celebrants eat wonderful foods to mark the end of their fast. The foods that are eaten include qolqass or Egyptian potatoes (also known as taro root) which are cooked into a nice soup with lamb, mutton, or beef broth and collard greens. Now, let us move on to the traditions of the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
Antiochian Orthodox Church:
The Antiochian Orthodox Church traces its distant roots to the city of Antioch, and it is now centrally located in Damascus, Syria. The Antiochian church covers a large range of territory within the Arab world as it includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, and other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, and North Africa.
The Antiochian Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar so the interesting thing is that the two religious holidays of Christmas and Epiphany fall either on or around the same date of January 6. In Orthodoxy, these holidays are called the Feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany; however, Epiphany is known by the name of Theophany. The Eastern world celebrates Epiphany somewhat differently than the West does because the coming of the three kings or magi is already incorporated into the Nativity story as opposed to how Western Christians believe that the kings arrived separately. This is also why the holiday bears a different name, that being Theophany because different customs and religious rites are emphasized within Orthodoxy as well.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church celebrates Theophany as the manifestation of God becoming a man in human form. Theophany has a much more personal celebration as the Antiochians are commemorating when God became human which is different than just celebrating the coming of kings. Furthermore, their traditions include the reenactment of baptismal rites, the blessing of houses, prayer, Gospel readings, and the uses of holy water, holy oil, and incense. As for the cultural celebrations, Antiochian Christians will ‘baptize’ bread to commemorate Jesus’s baptism and becoming-of-man as well. Now, let us explore the traditions of Assyrian Orthodoxy from the perspective of the Ancient Church of the East!
Assyrian Orthodoxy: Ancient Church of the East:
Now, we examine the ancient region of Assyria which is in present-day Iraq, Syria, and other regions as well. The Ancient Church of the East is an Eastern Christian sect of the East Syriac Rite. It branched away from the Assyrian Church of the East in 1964 and claims continuity with the historical Church of the East which is one of the oldest churches in the Near East.
The Ancient Church of the East also perceives Epiphany to be about the manifestation of Jesus becoming human. The Eastern churches see Epiphany’s primary function as one that celebrates the baptism of Jesus because that is how it was originally commemorated in the early third century AD. Later on, in the fifth century AD, we see the incorporation of the three magi in their celebrations, but they are still not as important as the baptismal emphasis.
The Assyrian Christians celebrate Epiphany through the blessing of the waters, specifically with holy water and a mass (worship service) as well. This is because their focus is on the baptismal rite of Jesus. In the context of the Assyrians, it seems that they celebrate rather contemplatively and revel in the fact that Jesus became man in human form. Let us take some time to explore how the Catholic sects and denominations celebrate their holiday of Epiphany. Let us find out how the numerous Catholic Rites (both Eastern and Western) celebrate Epiphany!
Catholics: Syriac Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, and Roman Catholics
“The Syriac Maronites” is a group of Eastern Christians who trace their distant lineage to Syria and are now largely located in the country of Lebanon. An interesting fact is that they share full communion with the Roman Catholic Church within Western Christianity. To continue our journey, we are now moving into the epicenter of the Syriac Maronite community which is in Lebanon. What unique cultural traditions do the Maronites have when celebrating Epiphany? Find out here!
The Maronites celebrate Epiphany by recognizing the blessings within their own lives. They attend church usually at midnight and greet each other with the words, “Deyim, Deyim’! which means ‘everlasting, everlasting’ with the implication that the Everlasting never forgets to visit them. As for the cultural celebrations of Epiphany, Maronites engage in making a type of dough where they knead it and get the yeast ready to make the rest of the bread for the year. This symbolizes that the Everlasting will always provide and not leave them empty-handed. In the case of the Maronites, we see that Epiphany is celebrated with thankfulness, fullness, blessings, and preparation for the rest of the year. By far, the most popular type of food made by Syriac Maronites is bread from a sourdough starter. Join me in finding out how the Melkites celebrate Epiphany!
The “Melkites” is a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians that belong to the Byzantine Rite. They have accepted the Council of Chalcedon, and they use the languages of Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic within their worship services. The interesting thing about them using Aramaic is that is traditionally known to be the language of Jesus Christ. They also see themselves as the first Christian community that dates to the Apostles.
The Melkites celebrate Theophany on January 6 where their focus is on the power of God manifested in Jesus’s baptism. Furthermore, they practice weeks of fasting before the Christmas and Theophany seasons. Then during Theophany, the holiday is celebrated as a joyous and festive time free from fasting. Their celebrations embrace aspects of a commitment to live devoutly and by remembering to worship God every day either with others if the situation allows, or alone people are not allowed to be together. Finally, another aspect of their celebration deals with communal meals together after their fasting is over. Let’s take a moment to explore the celebrations of the Chaldeans and Roman Catholics as well!
The Chaldean Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic sect that like the Syriac Maronites share full communion with Roman Catholicism in the Western Church. They have their headquarters in Iraq, and their members also reside in Syria as well as in the diaspora. It is estimated that 80% of Iraqi Christians identify as belonging to the Chaldean Catholic Church. At one time, they were a part of the Assyrian Church of the East, but in 1552, they broke off to create the Chaldean Catholic Church.
The interesting thing about how the Chaldeans celebrate Epiphany is that it is a season, not just one day. In fact, Chaldean Epiphany is also known as ‘Dinha’ lasts from 4-8 weeks. As a lot of the other Eastern Catholic and Orthodox sects emphasize the Baptism of Jesus, so, do the Chaldeans. The exception in their celebrations is that they consider their Fridays within the season to be Feast days (Feast days of saints, that is), with the likes of St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, the Evangelists, St. Stephen, the Doctors of the Church, and the Patron Saints of each church as well. The Chaldeans also believe Dinha to be a ‘Mystery’ that can never be known unless revealed by God. How do Roman Catholics celebrate Epiphany in the Arab World, find out here!
“The Roman Catholics” in the Arab World is a very small group. They are considered to be of the Latin Rite. They celebrate Epiphany slightly differently than their Eastern Catholic counterparts in that they emphasize three different concepts. They commemorate the Visitation of the Magi (three kings), Baptism of Christ, and the Wedding of Cana. Unlike the Eastern Rite churches, the Roman Catholics celebrate Epiphany as a separate holiday from Christmas. Furthermore, Epiphany is considered the close of the Christmas season as well as the end of the 12 days of Christmas.
As for the cultural celebrations, Roman Catholics commemorate Epiphany rather joyously and with much feasting. They celebrate by eating the “Kings Cake” which is a sweet cake that might contain a nut or figurine inside. Whoever finds it, gets special treatment for the day or a party at the end of the Epiphany celebrations in February. Finally, gifts may be exchanged because, in some countries, Epiphany is known as ‘Little Christmas’ to symbolize how the three Magi brought frankincense, myrrh, and gold to Baby Jesus.
Minority Christian Groups Within the Arab World: Armenian Apostolic Church and the Evangelical Protestants:
The Armenian Apostolic Church is a group of Armenian Christians. They are part of the Eastern Orthodox and are considered one of the oldest Christian sects. The Armenians are selected to be discussed in this article because a huge number of them have found their homes in the Arab World where they found a refuge from the very harsh treatment of the Turkish rulers.
The Armenian minority people in the Arab World, especially the Levante, consider Epiphany as a major holiday within the religion. An interesting fact is that the Armenian Christians use the Julian Calendar meaning they celebrate Christmas on January 6 which is also the same day as when Epiphany; however, the holidays are celebrated separately within the day as they are equally important.
As for the cultural aspects of their celebrations, we see that both fasting and eating are big parts of their festivities, and, as such, are equally important. It is important to keep in mind that before Epiphany, the Armenian Christians fast for an entire week, and then they have a feast to commemorate the holiday. On the same evening that they go to church, they eat a meal called Khetum which is light on the stomach whereas a richer dinner is served the next day! Khetum consists of dishes called Tanapur or Spas (a light yogurt and barley soup), Nevik (Swiss chard and chickpeas), fish, dried fruits, nuts, candies, and Anoushabour which is a sweet barley pudding made with fruits and nuts. Join me in learning about the Evangelical Protestants who are primarily from Egypt!
A final and very small religious minority is the Evangelical Protestants. The greatest concentration of them is located in the country of Egypt. There are other denominations of Protestanism in the Arab World, but they are in extremely small numbers. They used to be connected with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, but in the middle of the 1950s, they became independent under the authority of the Evangelical Church of Egypt with their governing body being the Synod of the Nile. It is estimated that only 8% to 10% of Egyptians identify as Evangelical Protestants, so in terms of their membership, they are quite small.
The Protestants celebrate Epiphany in very simple terms. Typically, they go to church on Sunday that is closest to the date of January 6 and they usually listen to a sermon while at a worship service. They do; however, celebrate a season of Epiphany which usually lasts until the period of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. Lastly, the Protestants in their sermons, emphasize the numerous miracles of Jesus during the Epiphany season.
As we can see here by exploring how the Arab Christians celebrate Epiphany, their traditions are both numerous and unique. In a sort of round-up, we can recall that food, fasting, water, contemplation, reflection, and thankfulness make up a large part of these beautiful festivals and celebrations. We explored the numerous countries that are all a part of the Arab World while learning about how their customs and traditions influence their culture. After this account, one can only appreciate the rich religious countries of the Arab World and how Epiphany stands out as a main valued and festive holiday among the Arab Christian World
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