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July 28, 2012

 Figure 1: Birthday by the American artist Claudia Diller.[1]


These two versions of a Coptic “Happy Birthday to You” song are evidence of continuing trials by Copts to reverse the language shift from Arabic to Coptic.


How do Copts say ‘Happy Birthday’ in Coptic? Interesting question!

Copts do celebrate birthdays

Did Copts celebrate birthdays anyway? Yes, modern Copts do, like so many others cultures, often with a party, to which family members and friends are invited, and which can be at home or a public place, such as a restaurant; invitees usually bring with them cards and gifts to the celebrated. In the party the usual cake is shared: decorated with lettering and age of the person, and studied with lit candles representing the individual’s age. The celebrated makes a silent wish and then attempts to blow out the candles in one breath, so that his wish may be granted. The party involves, just before, and as part of the blowing out of the candles little ceremony, the relatives and friends of the person singing the now almost universal song “Happy Birthday to You” to celebrate the anniversary of the person’s birth and wish him or her a happy day or year.

This song is sometimes sung in English:

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy birthday dear (name)
Happy Birthday to you

On other occasions, it is sung in Arabic:

سنة حلوة يا جميل
سنة حلوة يا جميل
سنة حلوة .. سنة حلوة .. سنة حلوة يا جميل

In the past:

But did Copts celebrate their birthdays in the past? There is evidence that ancient Egyptians celebrated the birthday of their Pharaohs. We know that from the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 40:20. Egyptian nobility and the rich of the time probably copied to some extent the celebrations of birthdays from their monarch. The Romans, who occupied Egypt in 30 BC, celebrated birthdays, as we are told, with hedonistic parties, and this, also, might have filtered down to Egyptians. The indulgent pagan celebrations most probably did not appeal to early Jewish, Greek and Egyptian Christians. In 245 AD, Origen of Alexandria wrote in his Homilies on Leviticus:

“None of the saints can be found who ever held a feast or a banquet upon his birthday, or rejoiced on the day when his son or daughter was born. But sinners rejoice and make merry on such days. For we find in the Old Testament that Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrated his birthday with a feast, and that Herod, in the New Testament did the same. But the saints not only neglect to mark the day of their birth with festivity, but also, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse this day, after the example of Job and Jeremiah and David.

For the true Christian, this life is a life of struggle and overcoming. The flesh is weak and prone to sin and lust. The carnal human mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7). We must learn to throttle, subjugate, and subdue the pulls of the flesh, by the power of God’s Spirit (Romans 7:1-25; 8:1-14).

Therefore, we do not celebrate the day we put on this fleshly tabernacle, but rather the day when we will put it off, and be clothed upon with a new body, pure and perfect, from heaven (Romans 8:22-23). In the meantime “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (verse 23).[2]

The various Coptic Church canons in the Middle Ages do not mention birthdays and do not try to regulate them (if they existed), as they did with celebrations, e.g., at weddings. This makes one think that Copts knew not birthday celebrations in the past, and until modern age. Copts, in general ‘celebrate’ good deaths more than births, as death marks the end of a life spent or ended in sainthood, and hence the bulk of their ecclesiastical calendar is occupied by feasts of martyrs and saints departures. This does not mean, however, that Copts do not celebrate the beginning of life, but this is rare in Church calendar, and is restricted mainly to the Nativity of Jesus Christ (Christmas) on 29 Kiyahk and the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Mary on 1 Bashans. The only thee saints, it appears, that Copts celebrate their birthdays are St. John the Baptist (30 Ba’una), St. Shenute (7 Bashans), St. Takla Haymanot the Ethiopian (24 Kiyahk).

Both Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Church encourage their faithful to celebrate name days rather than birthdays. A name day is the feast day of the saint after whom one is named; and so, Michael and Marina, e.g., can celebrate St. Michael and St. Marina feasts, respectively, as they fall on the ecclesiastical calendar, rather than their own birthdays, and this would be expected to be a religious celebration. As individuals are often given the name of saints on whose feasts the individuals are born, they end up sometimes celebrating their saints’ birthday on the same day they are born. I could not find any evidence that Copts used to celebrate name days in the same way one finds it is celebrated by Russians and Greeks, for instance.

With the advent of the modern age, and with the increased Europeanization of Egyptian society, Copts learned the celebration of birthdays, and this is regarded as acceptable and desired, when families and friends show their love to their beloved.

Reversion of the language shift?

Copts, as we have said, sing like most other cultures in our modern world the now universal Happy Birthday song. They do that in English and Arabic in Egypt – in the Diaspora, they do it in whatever language of the country they reside in. But Copts have always wanted to speak, sing and write in their own language, which tells of their attachment to their unique identity. Recently, two ‘Copticised’ versions of the Birthday Song have appeared on YouTube, one, very short, by a group of Coptic girls and boys, and another, longer, by not less than Father Shenouda Ishak, the eminent Coptic linguist (previously Emile Maher Ishak). I simply reproduce these below, as evidence of the continuing attempts by Copts to reverse the language shift from Coptic to Arabic, and hope my readers will enjoy them:

[1] The picture is credited to

[2] Gary Wayne Barkley, Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus: an annotated translation (PhD Thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1984.

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