Sham el-Nessim and My Easter Sham
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I grew up thinking I celebrated Easter in a mosque. Each year, when the Walmarts and Costcos would fill up with chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies, colorful ribbons, chocolate ribbons, and big cardboard cut-outs of flowers, I knew it was time for our yearly Spring celebrations at the mosque. All the local Muslims would bring their kids out on a sunny Sunday morning to hunt for eggs in the rolling green hills behind the white-stone building. From the highest point on that hill, we were almost taller than the copper crescent moon and star perched at the dome of the mosque; the children would squint their eyes and place their thumbs in front of the hilal, like one would do to the actual moon, for some reason I didn't know. Years later I would discover that the warm and pious attendant who worked nights at the masjid – his name was Mohammad, of course – would arrive at dawn to hide the eggs for the children. I suppose that's why his son (also Mohammed) always won the chocolate bunny at the end of the day for collecting the most eggs. I was never bothered, as I knew I had a mountain of Easter-themed chocolate at home from our last visit to the dollar store.
I had always assumed that we just celebrated Easter along with our Christian neighbors and friends. I also assumed our greeting on the day, "Sham el-Nessim saeed", was just a nice way of saying "Happy chocolate-egg hunt day!"
To my sincere astonishment, I realized that a mosque of 200-some Muslims was not, in fact, celebrating the rebirth of Jesus Christ. This surprise came second to my father's, who later discovered that his supposedly-Muslim daughter had spent the better part of her childhood celebrating the wrong holiday.
What is Sham el-Nessim?
Sham el-Nessim, or "smelling the breeze" in English, is an Egyptian national holiday that celebrates the Spring equinox. This year, it falls on April 17 – which, not coincidentally, is Easter Monday. The holiday, dating back to 2700 BCE, has long been celebrated in Egypt by Coptic and Sunni alike. Its name originated from the ancient Egyptian name of Spring, or harvest, Shemu. It originally celebrated the flooding of the Nile, an event which allowed Egypt a year of lush crops and fish for its people, and for the Gods, fermented fish (fesikh), onions, and lettuce in return. These offerings ensured the yearly fertility of Egypt's agriculture and land.
Like many an ancient ritual, the Egyptians would consult the stars and sun to determine the begin of Spring, and thus their celebrations. Former Chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization Mohamed Ibrahim Bakr noted in his book, Tell Basta, that:
The spring festival coincided with the vernal equinox, and the ancients imagined that that day represented the beginning of creation. The date of Sham El Nessim was not fixed. Rather, it was announced every year on the night before the feast at the foot of the Great Pyramid. The feast of 'Shamo,' means 'renewal of life' which was later corrupted during the Coptic age to 'shamm' (smelling or breathing) and the word 'nessim' (breeze) was added.
After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival and its rituals became linked with Easter. Over time, Sham el-Nassim became situated on Easter Monday, and its practice intrinsically linked with Easter's. Today, we can note the Easter traditions that have been carried over from the ancient holiday – colored eggs, picnics outside, and decorations using various bits of nature (leaves, flowers, etc.). It is easy to see how these customs were mirrored, as Spring – and eggs – are obvious symbols of rebirth, and thus easily linked to the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus' rebirth.
Today, Sham el-Nassim is still widely celebrated. Egyptians traditionally start the day by sniffing a halved onion before flocking to green spaces along the Nile with picnic baskets overflowing with bread, fiseekh, boiled colored eggs, termis (soaked lupin beans), and green onions.
In ancient times, eggs for the Gods were dyed and hung in temples as emblems of regenerative life. Today, families play a game in which one member taps an egg against another's, and then the other reciprocates. So on and so forth until one egg breaks. The player who successfully cracks the egg wins and, it is said, will have good luck during the year.
In pharaonic times, green onions were thought to have great healing powers, and would often be stuffed in the eyes of mummies to ward away evil spirits. Similarly today, although to a lesser degree, Egyptians believe green onions can help keep away the evil eye, and prevent infections and disease.
In a way, it is heartwarming to see how little has changed in the Egyptian celebrations of Sham el-Nassim in 4,500 years. Though some Islamic scholars have come out to discourage Muslims from celebrating the pagan – and now very closely Christian – holiday, Sham el-Nassim is still deeply regarded as one of the most joyous days of the year. Orientalist, translator, and lexicographer Edward William Lane wrote in his book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836):
It is remarkable that the Muslims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious and superstitious nature at particular periods of the almanac of the Copts, and even according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather... This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Muslims in the towns, and by more in the villages.