Sham el Nessim is an Egyptian national holiday marking the beginning of spring. It always falls on the day after the Coptic Christian Easter (following the custom of the largest Christian denomination in the country, the Coptic Orthodox Church). Despite the Christian-related date, the holiday is celebrated by Egyptians regardless of religion.
Before Sham El-Nessim Coptic Egyptian fasting for 55 days. During the entire period of fasting, they do not eat any animal products, known as “food with a soul”, and pray at church every day. The Sunday before Sham El-Nessim is the day they commemorate the resurrection of Jesus and humanity. They should fast, without eating or drinking, from 12 o’clock midnight until 6 o’clock in the evening of the following day. Friday before Sham El-Nessim is “The Great Friday”, when the crucifixion happened. This day all wear black and drink vinegar like Jesus did when he asked for water and they gave him vinegar to drink instead. On Easter Day (Sham El-Nessim) they eat fish, eggs, wear new clothes and visit one another.
Sham el Nessim
Sham el Nessim occurs on the Monday following the Orthodox Easter Sunday. It is Egypt’s oldest feast, and dates back to Pharaonic times. It is a spring festival that celebrates rebirth and the return of life, after the long dark winter of death. It is the Egyptian feast and is celebrated by the whole country: rich and poor, Christian and Moslem. It must be spent outdoors, so that all the Egyptian population can “sniff the breeze”, which is what Sham el Nessim means. Two main foods must be eaten, equally important. One is salted grey mullet called feseekh, which has a pungent odor, and the other is spring onions. Those who cannot bear the smell of feseekh tend to eat ringa, which is salted herring.
Important, too, is lettuce, and boiled salted lupine beans sprinkled with cumin, as well as green beans in their pod. However, the main meal is breakfast, usually taken as early as 6 am. This is when the egg parade begins and the rubbing of spring onions on children’s noses starts their day. Some families have a tradition of hiding eggs in different corners of the house, in typically unusual places, where the children are encouraged to find them. The child who retrieves the most is then treated to a small sum of money, called a “eideyya”, which is money given out to the children of the family by parents and grandparents, a tradition accompanying most feasts. The whole idea behind the specific foods is their symbolism explained by myth: basically, eggs symbolize life and rebirth and hence they are colored in the hope that color will be literally brought to life. Spring onions were believed by the Pharaohs to ward off the evil eye, salted fish symbolizes preservation, a major Egyptian concern, and all the leafy greens represent fertility.