Christmas is celebrated in over 160 countries around the world. Today we explore Ethiopia. First, Ethiopia does not use the Gregorian calendar that much of the rest of the world does. Instead, they still use the Julian calendar with twelve months of 30 days and the thirteenth month of five days. But, on leap years it has six days.
As a result, the new year is on September 11th, which is also the end of the rainy season. Additionally, Ethiopia has some rich legends. They believe King Balthazar, one of the three Wisemen, came from Ethiopia to honor Jesus at his birth. Moreover, they believe coffee originated in Ethiopia. Thus, it is an important part of every meal.
Therefore, with this different calendar, Christmas or Ganna or Genna, is celebrated on our January 7th or the 29th of Tahsas. However, Ganna begins by fasting for a full day prior to January 7th. But the Ethiopian Christians have been fasting for 43 days since November 25th. This fasting involves eating one vegan meal a day.
In addition, Ethiopians dress in the traditional Shamma. This is a thin white cotton piece of cloth with bright colors striped across the ends. Some places call it a netela which is a cloth worn like a shawl or a toga.
|Older Ethiopian Man in Shamma by Rod Waddington [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
Ganna is celebrated by attending church, gathering with family, food, and games. Church begins around 4 am and can last over three hours. Churches are often set up as three circles. Everyone stands for the service. The choir sings from the outer circle.
First, people enter the church with a lit candle and walk around the church three times in a solemn procession. Next, they form a second circle for the service and the men and boys are separated from the women and girls. Finally, in the inner circle, the priests perform the mass and serve Holy Communion.
Following church, families gather for a feast. This typically includes a thick meat stew with lentils and vegetables called wat, served on injera. Injera is an Ethiopian bread that looks like a pancake and tastes like sourdough bread. It is a staple at every Ethiopian meal.
Injera replaces utensils and people scoop up their food with a piece of it. Additionally, small pieces of injera are rolled along the sides to scoop food. Moreover, another Ganna tradition is to purchase a goat or cow and slaughter it for the stew.
|Traditional Injera by Franck Hidvégi [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
After the feast comes games. The most popular game, Ganna or Ganna Chewata, is a game similar to hockey. Players use a curved stick to try and knock a wooden ball, called a rur, into a small hole in the ground. Local tradition claims that the shepherds were playing this game when the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus.
The game gets quite loud. Some descriptions make it sound a bit violent. In addition, boys often play a game called Leddat. This game is similar to field hockey. The sticks and balls are made from local trees. The teams often represent regional areas and competition can be fierce.
Ganna is a fun holiday for Ethiopians, but the big holiday happens twelve days later on January 19th. Ethiopians call it Timkat but in English, we call it Epiphany. It celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In Ethiopia, it is a three-day celebration. It starts on Timkat Eve when the priests remove the tabot, a symbol of the Ark of the Covenant, and carry it in processions.
The tabot is often a stone tablet or scroll with the Ten Commandments on it. The tabot is always covered with an ornate cloth during the procession. There are all-night prayer vigils on the Timkat Eve. During Timkat the children walk to church in a procession wearing colorful robes and crowns. The adults wear Shamma. They follow the priests who are wearing red and white robes carrying colorful fringed umbrellas toward the water.
|Priest in Timkat Ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia by Jialiang Gao www.peace-on-earth.org [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons|
In the water, the priests bless the people and wash away their sins by splashing water on them. This is a symbolic way that people renew their own baptism each year. People play musical instruments during the procession while singing and chanting. They use a long T-shaped prayer stick to keep a rhythm. Likewise, they use the stick to prop up the priests during the long ceremonies.
After the ceremonies, there is more food and, of course, coffee. The men play a game called yeferas guks which they play on horseback. The men throw ceremonious lances at one another.
You will notice there is no talk about gifts or Santa Claus. Apparently, Santa Claus or Father Christmas has made an appearance in Ethiopia, but it is only in recent times that this Western tradition is being discussed.
- Bisson, Michelle. Cultures of the World: Ethiopia. Marshall Cavendish Benchmark. 2007.
- Bryan, Felicity. The Guardian. “Christmas in Ethiopia: it comes but twice a year.” (20 Dec 2014) https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/dec/20/ethiopia-christmas-january-trekking-holiday
- Debebe, Negash and Lakew, Habre. Ethiopia. Grolier Educational. 1999.
- Mamian, Amber. Kids Are a Trip. “Christmas in Ethiopia–Holiday Celebrations Around the World.” https://kidsareatrip.com/christmas-in-ethiopia-holiday-celebrations-around-the-world/
- Somervill, Barbara A. Ethiopia. Cherry Lane Publishing. 2012.
- Weller, Dianne. OrnamentShop.com. “Christmas in Ethiopia: Symbolism Among Food, Fun, and Games.” https://www.ornamentshop.com/xmas_trivia/christmas_traditions_in_ethiopia.asp
- Why Christmas Editors. “Christmas in Ethiopia.” https://www.whychristmas.com/cultures/ethiopia.shtml
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Welcome to our seventh annual Christmas in Different Lands series! Each participating blogger will share about Christmas in another culture or country. For even more glimpses of global Christmas celebrations, see our series from previous years (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and ) plus follow our Christmas board on Pinterest!
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