By Edmund Connolly, on 29 November 2013
Many of us may be looking forward to Christmas in a few weeks’ time, but for many of our Egyptian (and other Coptic readers) Christmas will not be until January 7th 2014.
Coptic is a bit of a hydra of a term, with a few meanings that can be used synonymously or separately. The word Coptic derives from the Greek ‘aigyptos’ referring to the people of Egypt, originally this term had nothing to do with religious order or identity. Whilst ‘Egypt’ comes from more of an Ancient Egyptian pronunciation, Copt most probably held an Arabic influence, with the initial ‘ai’ being dropped to produce the plosive ‘K’ sound (Gregorious 1982, Downer).
In more modern usage Coptic generally refers to the hybrid language that adopts Greek script with about 7 letters from demotic Egyptian. This language lives on primarily in its usage within the Coptic Church with the largest following being in Egypt (around 18% of the population (2009 census)). Due to the language’s prevalent usage being in a Christian context it’s not surprising Coptic also relates to the Coptic Church. Linguist historians would no doubt happily throw their weighty dictionaries at you for saying this, as Coptic, the language with Greek and Egyptian elements, was in use in the 2nd century BCE, a good 400 years before the Apostle Mark, according to religious creed, began developing the presence of Christianity in Egypt.
I am not even going to attempt to answer the ‘what does Coptic mean’ debate, but just say for my purposes it refers to a language that has since been adopted by a religion.
This Byzantine papyrus is written in double sided Coptic, from a Biblical manuscript, preserving Acts XIII 43-47. Unfortunately this piece is not display due to the fragility of Papyrus, without the cork backboard and mounting it would no doubt have disintegrated, but this catalogue picture shows the text relatively clearly. Papyrus usage spans around 4,000 years, and was one of the principle exports of Egypt until more durable animal skins and cloth-based papers became more commonplace in the seventh and 8th centuries.
In 20-26 BC the Coptic or Alexandrian calendar was adopted in order to echo the Roman Julian calendar (which is very similar to the calendar western communities follow with 13 months of roughly 30 days a piece) with 365 days plus a ‘leap day’ every fourth year. It was not until the 4th century that 25th December was more commonly accepted as Christmas Day, with the Coptic and Russian Orthodox denominations still recognising the January date. The 25th December offered several benefits, namely that it allowed Roman Christians to monopolise an already existing festival of Sol Sticia (the Winter solstice), likewise in 274 AD Emperor Aurelian (he of the magnificent beard who defeated the Sarmatians and Juthungi) made the 25th a national holiday to celebrate Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) who was the god of many Roman solider cults.
Following the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century (that’s the calendar we use now) 25th December moved 10 days earlier to make up for the reshuffled days. Due to this, the Greogrian date no longer matched up with the Coptic and Orthodox date, but due to its popularity on 25th, was adopted, perhaps a bit regardless of its actual historical significance.
‘When should Christmas be celebrated’ is definitely an esoteric enigma I cannot not even endeavour to answer here. In the museum we have an excellent trail by Carol Downer if you are more interested in the Coptic pieces, be it language, religion or text!
1 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
 Give Eutropius’ Historia Augusta a read if you fancy more on this chap’s history, he was a top notch general with some fantastic spiky headwear.