Excerpts from “Touching Ethiopia” an interesting book by Javier Goza’lbez and Dulce Cebria’n

New Year (11th or 12th September)

The Ethiopian year based on the Julian calendar begins on 11th September or on the 12th if it is a leap year. Ethiopian Christians celebrate many of the same events as the rest of the Christian world though they usually occur on royally different dates.

It all begins the night before when the men light the chibo (wooden stick) inside their houses and then carry it outside to ward off bad luck and attract a good year.

On New Year’s  day people visit friends and family young girls sing New Year’s songs and the families incite them to eat bread and meat. At this time of year the yellow Addis Ababa (Maskal flower) blooms in abundance.

Maskal (27th or 28th September)
Sixteen days after the New Year comes the great festival of maskal, the festival of the true cross. These celebrations commemorate saint Helena mother of the roman Emperor Constantine (4th century) who found the true cross in Jerusalem. Tradition says that saint Helena lit a bonfire or burned incense and implored god to show her the way to the true cross.

The smoke showed her the path and in remembrance bonfires are lit during this celebration. Another tradition says that part of the cross was brought to Ethiopia by one of the kings on the way to the capital. The faithful lit bonfire when it passed through their village to notify the next village of the presence of the cross.

In preparation for Maskal believers prepare the demera (bonfire) by tying several branches together and bundling them in the shape of a tree with a cross on top. In the cities bonfires occur in open spaces where thousands of worshipers and the religious authorities presiding over the event can gather.

In settlements and small villages women traditionally prepare a wheat flour pastry and the men light their chiibos at home and then head to the demera to set it ablaze. The women offer the men chunks of pastry wrapped in leaves which they place among the hot coals of the bonfire. The bread is made and tella (the local beer), tej and arake the latter is a strong liquor obtained from several cereals.

As the bonfire burns out, the central cross collapses and the elders predict the events of the new year according to how it falls. The next day Christians draw a cross on their forehead with the ash from the bonfire.

Christmas (7th or 8th January)
Christmas or genna celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ two weeks after the rest of the christian world celebrates it.

At noon on Christmas day youths in traditional dress play genna to commemorate the shepherds who were playing this game outside the stable while Jesus was born. It was these shepherds that spread the good news.  The game consists of pushing a widen ball with a long stick similar to today’s game of hockey. The three wise men and their gifts frankincense and myrrh are also celebrated.

The Ethiopian liturgical calendar also celebrates some of the major annual festivals of the lord, the virgin, or the venerated saints on fixed days every month meanwhile the churches solemnly celebrate their patron saint’s days. There are eight women saints Ethiopian Orthodox Christians also revere numerous saints from the rest of the christian world.

For the major religious celebrations, wealthy families in the countryside kill goats and other animals dividing them into four parts that correspond to the church the poor the family itself and guests.

Timkat or Epiphany (19th or 20th January)

This is the final great religious festival and is the most important orthodox Christian festival in Ethiopia. It commemorates when saint John the baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.

Since Lalibela is one of the major centers of Christianity, its version of Timkat is unique. In the early hours of the Eve of Timkat or Ketera, an unusual stirring fills the dusty paths running between the monolithic churches of Lalibela.

Priests, deacons, and monks hurry to and fro ensuring that each church is in perfect order. The initial nervousness and excitement gradually die down as an implacable sun fills the roads with silence.

It is a long wait in a world of faithful pilgrims, deacons, monks, nuns and altar boys. People wander around the churches under the baking sun all eyes are on the main door though some trusting their ears move away in search of shade. The tourists take up their positions occasionally diverting their gaze in an attempt to trick the sun.

The whole hierarchical procession is soon engulfed by a singing, shouting, smiling, and dancing crowd; spontaneous joy sweeps over as the priests fused with their Tabots advance serenely in line gazing ahead to a path cleared by deacons wearing fine crowns and ornamental crosses.

The prayers and chants will continue throughout the night whilst the faithful remain outside the tent forming an immense white carpet. Tonight is the only time the Tabots remain outside the churches for so long-for a whole night. A special religious night.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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