The liturgical year fasts feasts and pilgrimages

The Egyptian calendar, developed in the pharaonic period, included 12 months of 30 days and one short month of five or six days at the end of the year. The calendar of the Coptic Church retains this form of 12 named months of 30 days and a 'short month' of five or six days. The names of the Coptic months are all of Egyptian origin and relate to the agricultural cycle.

The liturgical year unfolds with a mixture of Christian and Egyptian cultural associations. The Fast of the Nativity (25 November to 6 January), a three-day fast added to a 40-day fast, marks biblical events and a miracle of the Fatimid period. Within this period a special liturgy honours the Virgin Mary and poetic hymns mixing Coptic and Arabic are chanted during evening vigils. The Feast of the Nativity follows on 7 January.

The Fast of Jonah, two weeks before Lent, was introduced by Patriarch Abraham the Syrian (975-9) to foster repentance; it includes the liturgical reading of the Book of Jonah. Great Lent of eight weeks begins with the week-long Fast of Heraclius, originally associated with Heraclius' attack on the Jews in 628. At present, it is suggested that this fast compensates for the non-fasting Saturdays and Sundays of Lent. The 40-day Fast of Lent may be a total fast until sunset, 3 p.m., or noon, followed by abstinence from certain foods.

Holy Week culminates in the early morning of Easter Sunday when congregants return home to end their 55-day fast. The Holy 50 days spans Easter to Pentecost and is marked by a complete absence of fasting. The Fast of the Apostles then begins on the evening of Pentecost and continues until the Feast of the Apostles on July 12, varying between 15 and 49 days in length. This feast retains a link to the agricultural cycle, since this is the period of the rise of the Nile. Well into the Christian period, a ceremony took place on the river bank asking for a good inundation and good crop. The Fast of the Virgin begins on 7 August and ends with the Feast of the Assumption on 22 August.

Pilgrimages to sites associated with the Virgin (the flight to Egypt and others) take place in this period. The pilgrimage (mulid) is an important part of popular religion. A

procession heads to the shrine of a martyr or other figure to celebrate his or her birth in heaven. Around 60 pilgrimages take place regularly. Some attract a small number, others draw thousands to an open-air festival. Along with the shrines of individual saints, sites associated with the flight to Egypt by the Holy Family are important. Pilgrims seek healing or other blessings along with the atmosphere of communal celebration.

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