It is tradition that makes holidays memorable, raising anticipation and excitement each year as celebrations come around. I have a friend who stuffs her family's Christmas stockings with oranges. For the rest of the year, simply the smell of oranges is enough to remind her of the festive season at home. Eid is not much different. One tell-tale sign that Eid is around the corner in Egypt is the mountain-high piles of special sugary cookies called kahk that Egyptian bakers make. Filled with nuts, nougat or dates, they crumble in your mouth like sugar cubes.
This year, to get in the spirit of the holiday, I sent out a message to friends to share their family Eid traditions. I was surprised to note how similar many of my Egyptian and non-Egyptian friends' rituals were. Like many holidays, Eid is always that much more of a celebration when children are involved. Many Egyptians will prepare for Eid on the last few nights of Ramadan with a good clean-up of the entire household. Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, is a celebration for the hard work Muslims endured by fasting for the month. It is a reward for the extra prayers and acts of worship and charity that many Muslims are careful to observe during the holy month.
And it is very much a new beginning, a fresh start that allows Muslims to look forward to another year riding the spiritual high garnered over Ramadan. With this optimistic outlook in mind, it is traditional for children to be bathed and to wear new pyjamas the night before Eid. This was always an important routine in my home, and I was delighted to learn that many of my Egyptian friends also practised this when growing up. Being freshly scrubbed by your mother and slipping into fresh pyjamas helped build up anticipation for Eid the next day - we knew it would soon be fun times for all.
This year, I was lucky enough to spend Eid with a few Muslim friends from Canada. We walked to prayers at the neighbourhood mosque at the ungodly hour of 6am despite having gone to bed late the night before. I was amazed to see how many people had arrived at the mosque before us. All were dressed in new clothes, an important Eid tradition that Muslims try to adhere to since the Prophet encouraged it. The mosque was packed, with many spilling over into the field behind - men and women lining up in straight rows to pray.
In Egypt, starting the day with Eid prayers is an important ritual. Even those who do not normally attend congregational prayers during the year will make the effort to wake up early and join their family and friends at the mosque. In Cairo, people spill out into the roads and some streets are closed off to make room for the crowds cramming into mosques. The city of a thousand minarets is filled with the prayers and the special chanting of Eid.
Afterwards, most people will go back home for breakfast with their family. This is an important time to be surrounded by loved ones because it is the first meal eaten during daylight hours after Ramadan. After a short nap to recover from the early prayers, the real fun begins for the little ones with family visits to the amusement park. After collecting their Eid money from the adult members of the family, they are allowed to spend it as they like on toys and candy. And like any other holiday, they usually embark on a sugar high, tearing around and messing up their new clothes.
However small these traditions may be, they are what makes Eid Eid, and what makes Egyptians wait and eagerly enjoy the celebration. A fitting end after a hard-earned month of fasting. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo