History of the Nativity Fast in the Coptic Church

I was listening to a youtube video of a very brief history of the Nativity Fast, and I was curious to know what the history of the Nativity Fast was for the Coptic Church.  Is it uniquely derived than other Eastern traditions, or can we safely assume our Nativity Fast origins began with the rest of the East in some manner (besides the extra 3 days of the Mokattam Fast)?


  • There was a long discussion about this a while ago. Looking for it
  • Wow...thank you, this helps a whole lot!

    Admins, feel free to merge this thread to the old one if you like! :)
  • Mina, keep in mind that I could not verify Fr Shenouda's references. Fr Shenouda's article on Coptic world has been removed and I don't have a copy. So as of now it is a theory only. Hopefully, someone has a copy and I can start looking for the exact references.

    I have to add that my original theory now seems to me a little narrow focused. While a local tradition may have held a custom that Advent fasting was 40 days (for the Virgin's fasting) plus 3 days (for Paramoun), I now believe the theory ignores the influence from the rest of the Christian world. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate Nativity Fast from Nov 15 to Dec 25, with Paramouny (παραμονή meaning "preparation") falling on Dec 24. The Roman Rite has 4 days for Nativity Fast, the Western Rite (Ambrose) rite has six weeks, Melkite Greek Catholic has a 15 day fast, the Ancient Church of the East (Assyrian) has a 25 day fast. The vast Orthodox majority celebrate 40 days (which includes Paramoun). As far as I can tell, no one has a reason for 40 days. The best we have is evidence that a 40 day fast started in the 12th century as seen in the first video.  

    My first revised (unsupported) theory is that the Coptic Church had a 1 day paramoun fast from 6th century that changed into 2 days over time for unknown reasons. If the paramount falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it is moved back to Friday making the paramoun fast 2 or 3 days. (This is a common practice for most Orthodox churches). A 40 day fast was added in Pope Christodolous' time (12th century) in addition to the paramoun fast. The question I can't wrap around my head is why the Coptic Church added 40 days instead of making the total 40 days like all other Orthodox Churches. The 40 day fast added to the Coptic Church has nothing to do with the month of Kiahk or Mokattam, but it mimics the Virgin Mary's fasting for the last 40 days of her pregnancy, which in turn mimics the common Jewish custom to fast 40 days. Now it is more likely that the Virgin Mary fasted the first 40 days of her pregnancy, not the last 40 days since she could not know the exact date of Christ's birth without being told (and that information would likely have been in the Gospels. Also, we will forget the whole controversy concerning the accuracy of December 25th. Just don't forget, this comes into play when discussing the length, duration and begin date of the Nativity Fast.)

    The second theory is somewhere between the 6th and 10th century, we had a 40 day fast like the Eastern Orthodox. Then in the 10th century, the Coptic Church added 3 days to commemorate Mokattam. This is the theory that persists. The positive effect of this theory is that it recognizes the cooperative influences of other Orthodox Churches on the Alexandrian Church (and vice versa). However, the flaw of this theory is the additional 3 days for Mokattam. If 3 days were added to the Nativity feast due to Mokattam, then we would have found some corroborating information in the History of the Patriarchs under Pope Abraham/Abraam (or another hagiographical text). But we don't have any text that 3 days were added to the Nativity feast (even though the Mokattam miracle is found in the History of the Patriarchs). 

  • Thank you for that.  I'll keep that in mind.  This Friday, I'm giving a lesson for the grad meeting on the Nativity Fast and its relevance for us.  I think history would be very informative for them on this for an appreciation of the Fast.

    When I was doing a google search for Abouna Shenouda's article, I found this:

  • Unfortunately this website didn't actually publish Fr Shenouda's article. The article I read 2 years ago by Fr Shenouda mentioned the Virgin's fasting during her pregnancy as Pope Christodolus' reason for the canon. This blog states Pope Christodolous' reason was to simplify the Nativity Fast duration (from St Mina's feast to Kiahk 29). It had nothing to do with St Mary. 

    In addition, this theory still ignores the fact that the Eastern Orthodox had a similar, simultaneous (and I believe interdependent) development. EO churches fast strictly one day for paramouny also (no eating till they see a star in the sky). If paramouny falls on a Saturday or Sunday, they don't add days, rather they have a different liturgy and a less strict fasting regime. As I see it, the EO have 40 days, the Coptic Church (COC) have 40 days. The EO have paramoun, the COC have paramoun (and we borrowed the word from them). This is why I believe the development of the Nativity Fast occurred interdependently.

    The most logical (again unsubstantiated) theory is that there were many local customs regarding the duration of the Nativity fast. Early Christianity (1-3 centuries) had a single feast for the Incarnation and the Theophany with a single paramoun fasting day. Pope Athanasius separates the two feasts in the 4th century. (making two paramoun fasts). By the time of Pope Benjamin (7th century), there is one Nativity paramoun fast day to copy EO paramoun. There was likely another party that had 40 day fasting, another that had a different amount of fasting, and another that had a third duration for the fast, as we see happening today. The 40 day fast gained popularity and found its way into Alexandria (or maybe Alexandria was first and it found its way into Constantinople and Jerusalem). Eventually, Pope Christodolous made Canon 15 that said it was 43 days (simply to mark the beginning and the end of the Nativity fast with common feasts, as the EO do with St Philip's feast on Nov 14). Fr Shenouda's lost article tells us Pope Christodolous gave the Virgin's 40 day fasting during pregnancy as the reason. 3 additional days were added for paramoun based on calendar discrepancy. I believe later scribes or historians associated and "pietized" the 40 day fast to reflect the Virgin Mary's fasting during her pregnancy. (Until I find Fr Shenouda's article and his source of the information, let's assume this was a later development).  The EO never bothered to give an additional reason for 40 days duration for Nativity (other than it mimics Moses' fasting 40 days to receive the Ten Commandments). 100 years after Pope Christodolous, the EO officially made the Nativity fast 39 days + 1 day paramouny. To explain the difference between the EO 40 days (39+1) with the COC 43 days (3 unknown +38-39 normal fast + 1-2 paramoun), someone associated the Mokattam miracle to explain the remaining 3 unknown days. Given our track record, I would guess that the Mokattam miracle was likely added in the 19th century Sunday school movement. 

    Sorry for the added confusing information. All of my theories may be wrong since I can't find any information at this time. I hope this helps your lesson.
  • edited December 2014
    Absolutely, I think it's going to be a lot of fun explaining these theories :)

    I agree that even after the Chalcedonian schism, we still were more or less an "imperial" Church.  Anything the EO Church did we also simultaneously seem to have adopted.

    The Malankara Church, from what I understand, fast 25 days or maybe less, I'm not entirely sure.  But I remember visiting a Malankara Church early in the Nativity fast, and they did not fast yet at the time.

    My lesson will also take into account the oneness of the Feast of the Nativity and Theophany, and I am planning to give a spiritual contemplation for that and for the importance of both the Theotokos and the Prodromos.
  • Absolutely, I think it's going to be a lot of fun explaining these theories :)

    Just keep my name out. When I'm wrong, I don't want people saying "Remnkemi is infallible" or something ridiculous like that.

    I would caution against making statements about developing into or out of an "imperial" church or using Chalcedon as a magical category of time. We really don't know who adopted from whom and when. Most liturgists recognize that the core of liturgical development occurred early but these little details on fasting, hymns, rites, customs, etc all developed late (no earlier than the 12-15th century in the EO world and 14-19th century in the COC world. Of course there are exceptions.) Anything earlier than this falls under a completely different, stricter scrutiny. In addition, people like to explain liturgical rites and customs through a political and polemic mindset, not a theological, linguistic or liturgical paradigm. Often we find a new ancient manuscript or text saying X and want this to mean COC is older (or better or more authentic) than EO or vice versa depending on which party you subscribe to. 

    If you focus on the oneness of the Feast of the Nativity and the Theophany, be prepared to answer "Why did Pope Athanasius separate them?" (Hint: we have no idea. We can only say this is a historical fact. Now you need to come up with a religious/spiritual reason; which will lead into another "secular pietism" problem like the Mokattam miracle.)
  • I will caution my lesson and say that these are all secondary/tertiary sources, as these are not verifiable and can be wrong, but here are all the theories laid out for you.
  • Hey everyone. I noticed that some of you were looking for the article by Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak. I've updated my blog post to include that article.  Visit the post again and you'll find a reference to it for you to download. Hope you find it helpful!  http://johnbelovedhabib.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/why-and-how-we-copts-and-eastern-orthodox-fast-before-nativity-christmas/
  • Here's a repost from John's blog link:

    Fr. Shenouda Maher
    The Nativity Fast

    Its Length and Manner of Observance:
    In the Coptic Church, the fast of the Nativity invariably begins on 16 Hatur of te Coptic Calendar and extends to the eve of 29 Kiahk (or 28 Kiahk in the year following the Coptic leap year), [i.e. from November 25 (or 26) to January 6 (inclusive)]. Thus covering 43 (or 42 in the year following the Coptic leap year).

    The Coptic tradition allows the eating of fish during this fast (except on Wednesdays and Fridays according to the rules of the Copts).

    The Spiritual Interpretation of Its Duration:
    The forty days of this fast were ordained as a spiritual preparation prior to the celebration of the Nativity of the Logos Incarnate; just as in the Old Testament Moses fasted forty days and nights before receiving the word of God in the form of the Ten Commandments written upon the two tablets of stone (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9-10, 18).

    Its History Length and the Interpretation of Its Duration:
    Ibn Sibaa, who lived in the 13th and early 14th centuries says that this fast has been instituted by the Coptic Patriarch Christodolous (1047-1077), in the imitation of the Blessed Virgin, who fasted from the seventh and half month of her pregnancy until childbirth, by reason of the fear that she had of St Joseph [This explains why the fast begins on 16 Hatur].

    Pope Christodolous ordains in canon 15 saying: "Likewise the Fast of the Holy Nativity shall be from the Feast of St. Menas (Mina), i.e. the 15th day of Hatur to the 29th of Kiahk (not inclusive).
    In canon 16 he adds: "But if the feast of the Illustrious Nativity fall on Wednesdays or Fridays, they shall break the fast on it"

    Ibn Kabar (the Lamp, chap 18) gives the beginning of the fast of the Nativity on the 15th of Hatur assing that its beginning is said to be on 19th Hatur for the completion of the 40 days).
    Modern writers interpret the additional three days to the forty as a commemoration of the miraculous event of the Muquattam hill at Cairo during the Patriarchate of Abraham ibn Zar'aa (975-978) in response to the challenge by al Mu'iz, the Fatimid Caliph (972-975), to the Coptic patriarch to prove the truth of the saying of Christ (Matthew 17:20) that faith could move mountains.

    Although the story is documented, the attribution of the three days' fast in commemoration of the miracle is not. This interpretation is not mentioned by Christodolous, who instituted the fast in the present form, nor by ibn al Assal (the canons Ch 15), nor by ibn Kabar (the lamp Ch.18).

    The above-mentioned interpretation of ibn Sibaa, which attributes the fast to the Virgin, might show that the fast was about one and half months from the beginning, especially because the original length of the Coptic fast as recorded by Patriarch Christodolous to begin on 15 Hatur (= November 11 Julian) agrees exactly with the original date of the beginning of the Christmas fast as enjoined by canon 9 of the Western Council of Macon (Ad 581), and that found earlier in the Calendar of Perpeetus bishop of Tours AD 491.

    The addition of the forty days to the original Paramoune of Christmas, in its maximum length of three days (when the Christmas falls on Monday) is the most plausible explanation of the forty three days.
  • edited December 2014
    Thank you johnbeloved!  Much appreciated for the update :)

    And thank you Cyril for the repost
  • Where can I find this idea of the Jewish practice of fasting 40 days during pregnancy?
  • In my previous comment the Roman rite has 4 days for Lent. I meant 4 Sundays. You need 5 Sundays to have a 40 day Advent fast. 

    Although I could not find the actual Canon 9 of the Second Council of Macon (581AD), I found two interesting bits of information. First. Gregory Bishop of Tours, France (573-594) was the deeply devouted to St Martin of Tours (371-397 AD). Under Gregory of Tours, Advent was set from November 11 (Feast of St Martin of Tours) to December 24 (43 days) and it was later called St Martin's Lent. As you can see Pope Christodolous is not the only one who wanted to mark the advent feast by his "favorite" saint's feast. Much of what Gregory of Tours wrote was justified/explained by appealing to the writings and authority of Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours from 460-490 AD. This is what I think Fr Shenouda's meant. I could not find a "calendar of Perpeetus". 

    Secondly from secondary sources on the internet, I gather the canon 9 states "that the liturgical norms for Lent be kept from November 11 to December 24". It is for this reason that the Advent in the Roman Catholic church mimics Lent (color purple for repentance, over-half-way mark Sunday). This is important because it reflects a Jewish custom. Lent is a strict fast for all Apostolic Churches reflecting the importance of repentance for 40 days. It corroborates the need to make the fast 40 days, not 30. This seems to be the original understanding of Advent (at least for the RCC) but it later lost importance (as we see that RCC Advent and other Churches no longer have a 40 day Advent fast). 

    It was Pope Gregory VII the Great (1073-85) that really structured the Advent for RCC. He also reduced the Advent Sundays from 5 to 4. 

    I still don't understand how and why the Virgin Mary fasted the last seven and half months of her pregnancy and not the first 4o days. If we assume she was afraid to confront St Joseph the Carpenter when she started showing (as Ibn Sabaa stated), then we are faced with some strange peculiarities in the relationship of St Joseph and the Virgin Mary. (I have a hard time believing fear and distrust was part of their daily life). I think it makes more sense that St Mary fasted 40 days immediately after the annunciation while she was at St Elizabeth's house. She stopped fasting when the 40 days were up (just like Moses and Elijah). 

    As we can see, the length of 40/43 days for the Nativity fast revolved around saint feasts in proximity to Christmas in the COC, EOC and RCC. EOC kept 40 days total with paramoun in the 12th century. COC added 40 to the original 1-3 paramoun days in the 10/11th century. RCC lowered the 43 day fast (6th century) to 28-34 days (11th century). COC and EOC have strict fasting on Paramoun. RCC used to have strict fasting for the entire fast like Lent (but that all changed with Vatican II). Whether or not the reason for 40/43 days was originally due to a saint's feast day or the Jewish custom of 40 day fasts remains unknown. (Maybe both reasons are involved simultaneously and interdependently, although no one seems to have seen it this way). All churches now see the Advent Fast as a preparation for Christ's coming (which is mainly why it makes no sense to continue to associate the Mokattam miracle with Advent).

    Mina, I gave you more information for your lessons. I'm sure your audience will want to kill me for all this extra information.
  • Where can I find this idea of the Jewish practice of fasting 40 days during pregnancy?

    Fr Shenouda says it is in Ibn Saba. This must mean the Precious Pearl/Jewel by Youhanna Ibn Sabaa. Unfortunately, Fr Shenouda did not give us a reference. If someone can find the references, I can get you the exact text. 
  • But if the Theotokos fasts while she was pregnant, what type of fast was it? A pregnant woman needs to eat. So I am a bit skeptical. I wonder if they confuse the fast with the 40 days purification rite post-birth of Christ, which is most likely what she went through before entering the temple again.
  • "A pregnant woman needs to eat."
    As does any man or woman, but they can fast for 40 days (with no food). A pregnant woman can fast with no food and I doubt the fetus will have any problems (especially in the first trimester). Now there are pediatricians and obstetricians that will claim a fetus will be born with developmental problems or spina bifida without natal vitamins and so on. But I am sure you would also be hard pressed to find any general medical doctor who would not advise against 40 day fasts (no food) for any man or non-pregnant woman. 

    As to what type of fast was it, we have no way to know. Moses and Elijah fasted with no food. Jesus fasted with no food. Modern Jews fast completely on the designated fasts. (For Yum Kippur, they fast 25 hours with no food or water). I suppose if a Jew willingly fasted for 40 days, they would be expected to eat something small (as long as it is not one of the designated fast days). There is also a rule that if the Torah is dropped accidentally, the community must fast for 40 days. But "this forty day fast would not have to be 40 days in a row, and would only include the daylight hours, but not the night before." (Source) It is possible that St Mary may have fasted mornings only (or something like this). Either way, no one has ever documented St Mary's fasting during pregnancy (so far, we only have one instance written a millennium later). 
  • It would be interesting to research this tidbit.  I know with pregnancy, a healthy diet is recommended.  In the beginning, if you're nauseous or throwing up, fluids are essential.  And of course, prenatal vitamins are a must, and so the nutritional value of what people ate back then was important.
  • Is it not possible that the 40 day fast existed prior to Pope Christodolous and that he only made it official? If the West was already fasting 40 days since the 5th/6th century, isn't it probably that Egyptians started Advent fasting at an earlier date before Pope Christodolous?
  • Possible...the thing is Ibn Kabar said it only started with Pope Christodolous. That's where our sources come from, but if we find evidence to the contrary, it is possible he could have been mistaken.
  • @katanikhoros,
    I tried to emphasize the point that there were many traditions on the Nativity fast occurring simultaneously and probably interdependently. The were independently started as localized, regional tradition, but dependent on global influence of Orthodoxy. Thus we find no fasting, 40 days fasting, 10 days fasting, 25 days fasting, etc. Some likely occurred only in local regions, some occurred along side other regions, some occurred first and died, etc. Thus, it is highly possible that a 40 day fast for Nativity existed before Pope Christodolus (as Fr Shenouda implied). I am inclined to believe that it was not as global as Fr Shenouda implied. We can only go by documented primary sources, as Mina said.

    (FYI, it was Ibn Saba, not Ibn Kabar that discussed Canon 15 of Pope Christodolus, according to Fr Shenouda's article. I don't think Ibn Kabar said anything about the Nativity fast)
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