Society

Egyptians of all creeds celebrate Sham el-Nessim

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Egyptian families gather in public parks and gardens to celebrate the national holiday of Sham el-Nessim and enjoy the spring breezes. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Mashareq]

Egyptians of all faiths put their differences and day-to-day problems aside and came together to celebrate Sham el-Nessim, a national holiday marking the start of spring.

The annual holiday falls on April 17th this year, the day after Coptic Christians celebrate Easter.

Egyptians have made preparations for this special day and have stocked salted fish, herring and mullet, lettuce, onions and green chickpeas to take with them to public parks and gardens in all governorates to celebrate the arrival of spring.

"This is a day when Muslims forget they are Muslim and Christians forget they are Christian," said Qarwi Mohammed Munim, 50, a Muslim.

Sham el-Nessim is a pharaonic harvest [planting] celebration that dates back to the third dynasty (around 2700 BCE), said Cairo University history lecturer Mohammed Arafa.

The name is derived from "shemu", which means "creation" in the Egyptian language and the Arabic word al-neseem, or "breeze", which was added later because this celebration is connected with the spring breeze, he said.

The festival, which falls each year on Easter Monday, was later linked with the Christian calendar rather than the Islamic one to ensure it did not fall during Lent, the Christian fast, when Christians could not participate, he said.

"Sham el-Nessim is truly a holiday during which all Egyptians come together and celebrate, irrespective of their faith or social background," he said.

In addition to salted fish and other delicacies, the holiday specials include coloured eggs, which are a symbol of creation, Arafa said.

"The pharaohs would decorate eggs with religious writing and place them in baskets, while salted fish or fesikh refers to the sanctity of the Nile and the onion is a symbol of the will to live," he said. "Also, lettuce represents fertility and chickpeas mean the arrival of spring."

A shared holiday

"Most Christian families celebrate this holiday with Muslims," said Magdy Izzet, a Christian in his 60s. "Most of the time, they go out together on this holiday and offer each other profuse greetings throughout the day amidst a beautiful atmosphere."

In the past, Izzet said, his father told him "Jewish people also would join them in the celebrations", since this holiday falls during the Jewish celebration of Passover.

"It was even more beautiful back then as each sect or religion would decorate their neighbourhood with colours, date palm branches and lights," he said.

"Egypt badly needs the Sham el-Nessim holiday, which unites all Egyptians far from blind religious bigotry," he added. "I wish it could be celebrated more than once a year."

Munim, who grew up in old Cairo and had Christian neighbours, said they would all celebrate together on Sham el-Nessim and on Easter.

"Although everyone I grew up with has ended up in different places, we still keep in touch, and four Muslim and Christian families, my family among them, celebrate Sham el-Nessim together every year regardless of what is happening," he said. "We meet at a public park and all share our fesikh meal, while every family is responsible for bringing a part of the holiday feast."

"It truly is a beautiful holiday that brings Egyptians together, and the scene in Cairo and the rest of the Egyptian governorates on Sham el-Nessim is unparalleled as everyone is racing to secure a spot at the public parks and gardens and children are over the moon, especially when they start cracking their coloured eggs," he said.

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