What did late antique Egyptians sing about at Christmas? Angels, shepherds, and the Virgin Mary, of course.
Angels have the main role in what appears to be the earliest manuscript of a Christmas carol, preserved in Greek on a papyrus from the city of Hermopolis (modern el-Ashmunein) in Middle Egypt, Berlin P. 11842. The somewhat effaced hymn is written on the back of a tax receipt from the mid-fifth century, thus it probably hails from the same period. It is a single text that was scribbled on any available scrap papyrus, and all the empty spaces were used to write lists; perhaps someone took a note of a hymn he heard in church. The text evokes the light that appeared to the shepherds and cites the song of the angels. Here is my rough translation:
“Light shone from above… to us the word of faith, and he heralded us the song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest, to God our Saviour, hallelujah.”
But why do we have to wait until the fifth century to get the first Christmas carol on papyrus? After all, Christian hymns were recorded in Egypt already in the third century. One reason is that the earliest hymns do not make reference to the liturgical year. They are usually general praises of Jesus Christ and elaborate on salvation and baptism. Even more importantly, Christians in Egypt did not celebrate Christmas until the end of the fourth century. They had only Epiphany (that little noticed festival on 6 January about the Magi and the baptism of Jesus), and they accepted Christmas as a separate feast day of Jesus’ birth only at some point in the 5th century.
Once introduced, however, Christmas became a favourite topic of hymn writers, just like in the West. Berlin P. 11842 is the first in a long series of Christmas carols preserved on papyrus. Many of them paraphrase the Nativity narrative of the Gospel of Luke and elaborate on shepherds and angels. A few turn to the Gospel of Matthew and cite the star and the Magi. The Virgin Mary takes the centre stage in many hymns. Her miraculous virgin birth and her being the Mother of God was a matter of theological importance, and liturgy in Egypt was eager to reaffirm it. There is, however, much less focus on baby Jesus. His birth is of course the central question, but it is only on a few occasions that his person enters the spotlight and he is described as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, especially to emphasize the contrast between his divine glory and his self-humiliation as a human child in a manger. But altogether the late antique Christians in Egypt were little interested in images of a cute little baby Jesus. Their focus was on the theological complexities and the salvific value of the mystery of incarnation.
Provenance: Egypt, Hermopolis
Date: ca. 450 CE
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin (P. 11842 verso)
Designation: Berlin P. 11842 vo 1 (trismegistos.org: TM 64971 / LDAD 6212)
Edition: Kurt Treu (1971), “Neue Berliner Liturgische Papyri,” Archiv für Papyrusfroschung 21, 66.