A few metres away from the mosque-mausoleum of Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo, Amina, the grandmother of five grandchildren, was busy haggling over the prices of the Ramadan lanterns she had picked up for her grandchildren for this year’s Ramadan.
“I am shocked. They are a lot more expensive than last year, and they are just Ramadan lanterns to bring joy to the kids,” she said.
Since she had her first grandchild back in 2010, Amina has been very careful about this annual gift. With every new grandchild, she has bought one more lantern. “It is shocking how the prices have increased over the years,” she said.
The price of a medium-sized lantern has soared from around LE20 “for a really nice lantern” to well over LE70 for a “so-so” one. But Amina was not willing to compromise on the annual gifts. For her, the lanterns are a delightful tradition associated with the most joyful month of the year.
There are many accounts of how this tradition started in Egypt sometime around the 10th century. Some are attributed to a ruler of one or other Arab-Muslim period, while others are attributed to social norms. One thing the accounts have in common is that the lanterns have always been a quintessential decorative item in Ramadan.
“Originally, the lanterns used to be a sort of toy for kids to carry and go round with. Now, even when you give the lanterns to children, they don’t carry them. They keep them on a desk or a table instead,” said Amer, a seller of Ramadan lanterns at the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque.
According to Amer, who has been in the business for over 40 years, “in the late 1980s and 1990s, the lanterns, especially the traditional ones made of steel and glass, were falling out of fashion.” They were losing ground to made-in-China versions lit with electric mini-lamps rather than a small candle, with some even reproducing traditional Ramadan songs when touched.
However, Amer said, with the 2000s, there was a shift in mood back to the original lanterns. “I think this was a result of the shifting function of the lantern from a toy to a decorative item,” he said. This new wave was also not just about individuals, but also about restaurants and hotels that opted to install Ramadan decorations for their Iftars and Sohours.
Radwan, another lantern seller in Midan Al-Gamei in the east of Cairo, said that over the past 20 years the growing demand for lanterns for decorative purposes, “either by families or by work places or restaurants,” has inspired an evolution in lantern-making in Egypt.
“We still sell the traditional ones, but we also have ones that are made of coloured glass and steel, using the traditional khayamiya printed cloth and plastic,” he said.
Radwan has also been selling table spreads, cushion covers, and trivets made of the same khayamiya cloth. “People like to give their houses a Ramadan mood, so they decorate them with lanterns and special spreads and so on,” he said.
Hend, a civil servant in her 40s who was buying a few items from Radwan’s stand, said that she loved the time when she, her husband, and her three children start to put up Ramadan decorations.
“I started doing this when I wanted to introduce the children to the fast, and I wanted to give them a positive feeling about Ramadan so that it would not come across as just a fasting month but rather as a month of festivities,” she said.
“I thought if I just got them the lanterns, it would not have the same effect as when we all work on decorating the living and dining rooms. Then I put their three lanterns in their bedrooms as well,” she added.
SPECIAL ORDERS: In Zamalek, Mahmoud, a sales assistant at an upscale gift store, said that for the holy month his store has been making special orders of lanterns, table spreads, mugs, and nut bowls, all with Ramadan themes.
“We started doing this over 10 years ago when we saw a growing demand from clients who wished to have Ramadan decorative themes,” he said.
Mahmoud’s store also introduced Ramadan decorative hanging lights in the shape of crescents, stars, and lanterns. “These are the most popular items because it is easy to stick them on the windows, and there is a little battery at the end of each set to work them,” he said.
Reem, a housewife in her 60s, has been a regular client of Mahmoud’s for over 10 years. “I must say I did not grow up with Ramadan lanterns. They were something for other people, not for us,” she said.
Reem did not have particular Ramadan decoration when she was growing up either. However, with the growing fashion for stores and coffee shops putting up Ramadan decorations, Reem decided to join the mood. “I thought, why not? After all, I decorate for Christmas and Easter and Sham Al-Nassim, so why not for Ramadan as well,” she added.
At first, Reem went to workshops where the lanterns are made to get a special order. “I wanted something simple but nice, and it was possible to get a lantern that was made-to-measure. I learned that to have it early in Ramadan, I needed to place my order at least three or four weeks ahead,” she said.
Reem’s guests then keenly inquired about her new decorative acquisition. A couple of years down the road, she said, she went back to Old Cairo to pick up a couple of khayamiya spreads that she throws on the back of a couple of chairs in her reception area at home.
“I did not like the khayamiya prints. I preferred the original sewn ones, and I would not use them for table cloths because the original ones are difficult to wash. They lose their beautiful colours,” she said.
When she saw the decorative lighting items being made for Ramadan, Reem decided to expand a little further “to give a special effect to the evenings of Ramadan.”
Layla does most of her Ramadan decorations herself. “I like to keep up the traditions that my mother set,” she said.
Born to an Egyptian father and a German mother, Layla saw her mother transferring all her Christmas decorations to Ramadan versions. In the 1960s, Layla’s mother could not buy all the Ramadan decorations she wanted as she did with the Christmas things she would get from Germany.
“She had to have everything hand-made. Just as we had a Christmas calendar, there was also a Ramadan calendar. Just as there were Christmas stockings, there were Ramadan bags. And just as there was a Christmas tree, there were also Ramadan lanterns,” Layla said.
When she later had her own children, Layla kept up the traditions of her mother. She even invented “Sheikh Ramadan” as the Ramadan version of Santa Claus. Now that her children are grown up, Layla is still careful about having Ramadan decorations, most of them hand-made.
She has Ramadan table spreads, napkin holders, cushion-covers and other items.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.