Ancient Living Traditions

Sham El Nessim – Egypt’s Oldest Festival
Egyptians walk and picnic along one of the branches of the Nile in the southern town of Mallawi, on April 9, 2018, as they celebrate Sham al-Nessim, a Pharaonic feast that marks the start of spring. (Getty)

Sham El Nessim is perhaps Egypt’s oldest festival and comes to us right off the walls of the temples. Ancient Egypt started to celebrate this feast at the end of the Third Dynasty, or around 2,700 BC,.

According to the Egypt State Information Service, it was first called the Festival of Shmos (“Resurrection Feast”) in ancient Egypt. However, in Coptic Egypt it was shortened to Sham and the word Nessim (“breeze”) became somehow affiliated with it.

According to the Egyptian Archives for Folk Life and Folk Tradition, this festival is also affiliated with the agronomy of ancient Egypt. It is usually celebrated on the 25th of the Coptic month Bramhat as a sign of the new spring/summer cycle and is a reflection of the Osiris doctrine which postulates life after death. Over the ages, Sham El Nessim became associated with a whole week of Coptic rituals that are concluded with this feast. The week before Sham El Nessim starts off with Palm Sunday when Egyptians usually make a wheat doll which is a mixture of palm leaves and wheat. They would hang it on their doors as a good omen for a prosperous year to come. On Monday they make porridge while Tuesday is for bloodletting (rarely practiced, but once used to get rid of the bad winter blood).  On Ayoub (Job’s) Wednesday they follow the tradition of Prophet Ayoub who is said to have been cured after scrubbing with Juniper. On Thursday they make lentils while Friday is named Sad because it is the day that Jesus was pronounced dead.  Saturday is the Saturday of light, when Jesus was resurrected. It is also a day where all Egyptians wear Kohl in their eyes in order to protect and enhance their vision in order to see a better year ahead. Then comes Sham El Nessim on Monday.

Egyptian children color eggs in the al-Jazirah village, near the Nile delta city of Mansura, 120 kms north of Cairo, 09 April, 2007, as they celebrate Sham al-Nessim, a pharaonic feast that marks the start of spring. (Getty)

At the crack of dawn on Monday, Egyptians flock to parks, gardens and the banks of the Nile where some take a cruise on a felucca. Then they eat their breakfast which has to include green onions, salted fish, lettuce and eggs, which are usually colored. There was a famous game they played on that day with colored eggs and stones that look like eggs. People would have to guess which is the stone and which is the real egg. Hence came the proverb “he who can play with stones and eggs,” meaning that someone is a deceitful person who can easily trick people. 

Egypt State Information Service reveals the historic concept behind such food. The colorful eggs are a symbol of life as explained in the Book of Dead and the hymns of Akhenaten. The ancient Egyptians used to write their wishes on eggs and hang them on trees so they see the light and God would grant their wishes.

Eating salted fish is a way to pay tribute to the holy River Nile and the food it bestows on Egypt. Fish and lettuce are strongly associated with fertility in Egyptian heritage. As for the green onions, they are known to be a powerful remedy and protection against death because one of the ancient Egyptian royals got very sick and was cured by eating green onions. This happened a few days before Sham El Nessim and so they added the onions as one of the main ritual foods when they began to celebrate.