An Ethiopian Christmas
Yodit Getachew Hylton,Contributor
ETHIOPIANS CELEBRATE Christmas on January 7 as it still follows the ancient Julian calendar. Meanwhile, Jamaica and other countries around the world follow the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on December 25. One of the oldest nations in Africa, Ethiopia, still follows the ancient Orthodox calendar.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church's celebration of Christ's birth is called Lidet (birthday) or Ganna, which, according to elders, comes from the word 'Gennana' meaning 'imminent' to express the coming of the Lord and the freeing of mankind from sin. Genna is also the name given to a hockey-like ball game played with a curved stick and a round, wooden ball that young men play on Christmas Day. Legend has it that when shepherds heard of the birth of Christ, they rejoiced and started playing the game with their sticks. Men and boys in villages now play the traditional Genna game with great enthusiasm in the late afternoon on Christmas Day, a spectacle much enjoyed by village communities and the elders who referee the game.
Christmas (Lidet or Genna) festivities begin early in the day, as early as 4 a.m. when people gather in churches for services after a 43-day fasting period leading up to Christmas (Lidet or Genna). The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in traditional white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma (a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly coloured embroidery). The shamma is worn somewhat like a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. In a celebration that takes place several days later, the priests will dress in turbans and red and white robes as they carry beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas.
This pensive fasting period is required of the clergy and the followers and is known as the fast of the prophets or the fast of the advent which is carried out to cleanse the body and soul in preparation for the day of the birth of Christ. Everyone stands throughout the worship service for up to three hours. The clergy and debtera (scholars versed in the liturgy and music of the church) lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has done for over 1,500 years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity.
This ancient rite culminates in the spectacular procession of the Tabot (the Tabot is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant) and carried on top of a priest's head). The procession makes its way three times around the church amid ululation and chiming church bells, dazzling umbrellas and colourful attire of the clergy and debteras (especially designated to accompany the Tabot) as well as a throng of Christians who follow the procession with lighted candles.
After the service, people disperse to their homes to feast and the clergy break their fast. Food and drinks are plentiful, with many homes preparing the special meals characteristic of all big festivities highlighted on the Ethiopian calendar. Food served at Christmas includes doro wat and injera (a spicy chicken stew eaten with the sourdough pancake-like bread). Often, tej, a local wine-like drink made from honey, accompanies the feast.
In Ethiopia, Christmas is quietly shared and celebrated in groups of family and friends. Gift giving is not a part of Christmas festivities in Ethiopia. Only small gifts are exchanged among family at home. But one gift most eagerly awaited by all children is a new outfit that they wear with pride on Christmas Day. The festive mood continues until the late hours of the evening. The joy of giving and sharing, extends beyond religious beliefs and spreads the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind throughout the world.
Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups they belong to. The grown-ups wear the Shamma. The priests will now wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas.
The music of Ethiopian traditional instruments makes the Timkat procession a very festive event. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks (like cymbal). A long T-shaped prayer stick called a Makomiya taps out the walking beat and also serves as a support for the priest during the long church service that follows. Church officials called Dabtaras study hard to learn the musical chants, Melekets, for the ceremony. During this festivity, Ethiopian men play another sport called Yeferas Guks. They ride on horseback and throw ceremonial lances at each other.
Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia, but are religious observances. Feasting and games are the main other activities of the season.
Yodit Getachew Hylton is honorary consul for Ethiopia in Jamaica.