Christmas in Ethiopia: The unique traditions of Ethiopian Christmas

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Ethiopian Orthodox bishops and deacons process during Genna (Christmas) in the northern town of Lalibela. CHRIS ROCHE

From Selamta (The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines Jan–Feb 2017)

Christmas in Ethiopia, like most other Christian holidays, is celebrated in its own unique way. Falling on January 7th, the holiday of Genna (also known as Lidet, or “birthday”), does not hold as prominent a place on the Ethiopian calendar as it does in other parts of the world. Easter (Fasika) reigns as the preeminent Christian holiday, but Genna nonetheless remains a major religious and cultural event throughout the country.

The main ceremonial activities of the holiday center around local Ethiopian Orthodox churches (though Protestants and Catholics also celebrate), which hold late-night services on Christmas Eve lasting well past midnight. Traditional liturgical singing marks these services, as does chanting performed by priests and deacons wearing colorful robes with gold and silver accents. Many people travel by foot from church to church, taking in various services until the light of dawn announces the arrival of Christmas morning.

The first Christmas meal is often an early breakfast, eaten by bleary-eyed congregants after returning home. The light meal likely starts with juice made from flaxseed (to oil up the intestines after 40 days of fasting) before moving on to the famously spicy chicken stew doro wot, and it most certainly includes appropriately strong Ethiopian coffee to help welcome the new day. Later on, friends and relatives gather to enjoy a full Genna feast, usually involving a freshly killed lamb for mutton tibs and traditional beverages such as tej (honey wine). And though gift-giving does not figure very prominently in the Ethiopian Christmas tradition, the purchase of new clothing for the occasion — particularly for children — is seen as an important part of the festivities. Several hundred families walking toward churches dressed as a sea of brilliant white cotton is a common sight throughout the country.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Ethiopian Christmas tradition is that it is associated with a sport, also called Genna, that is most widely played during the holiday season. According to Ethiopian legend, when the shepherds of the biblical Christmas story were informed of the birth of the Messiah, they expressed their overwhelming joy by using their staffs to break into a spontaneous game that resembles field hockey. The afternoon of Genna is filled with matches of the game, played mainly by young men, and potentially other sporting activities such as horse racing.

Although Genna is observed by Christians across Ethiopia, the most famous Christmas celebrations arguably occur in the historic city of Lalibela. There, crowds of up to 100,000 pilgrims flock to watch immaculately dressed Orthodox clergy perform the woreb lining the steep ledges surrounding the famous rock-hewn churches, carved over 800 years ago. Accompanied by a slowly building tempo of traditional church drums, metallic sistrum and pilgrims’ clapping, they lead the crowd in an intensely moving musical performance about the birth of Jesus Christ. For though its execution may look different here than in other parts of the world, the focus of Ethiopian Christmas remains the same: to celebrate the birth of a Savior who came to take away the sins of the world, and to bring peace to all mankind.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks to a famous an Ethiopian Falasha merchant by the name “” Tamree”” who thousands years ago established relationship b/ n Ethiopian kingdom of Sheba and king Solomon of Israel . There is no any history of him written in Ethiopia yesterday or today. If it was not for him the kingdom of ethiopia and ethiopianisem could not survived today.
    For the record he was a very rich successful merchant ,travelling all the way to Damascus , Petra etc bringing all kinds of crafts men knowledge to Ethiopia . Axum, lalibela and all historical places built by Falasha crafts men with secret knowledge they inherited from their fore father thousands years ago. Thanks to them we have a unique tradition and culture going back to Moses who was also a Falasha.
    That is why during X-mas the high land of Ethiopia mountain is a secret vacation places for Angels and they dissent to holy places of Ethiopia to participate the Christmas process and enjoy the flavour of ethiopian tradition food with pure and clean Ethiopian high landers with no harm to any one. Even Chris himself comes back to Axum and other places to just remember his childhood and the only place God kept for him is the high land of Ethiopia where he feel at home as it was in Jerusalem, the first time Chris came back to jerusalem from heaven got angry and could not recognise any thing, he run away back to heaven since then he enjoy now Christmas in Ethiopia high land with pure Christianity and it’s people.

    • Are you saying Ethiopian Tradition is not indigenous? Are you saying Ethiopia is only the Ethiopian Highland? Think!!

  2. Thank GOD for creating me as an Ethiopian, If i was an Eritrean, i will be forced to follow my Italian masters calander , eat Mortadella and Pork belly. God bless Kitfo,and Gored-Gored.

  3. These are my people and my land. There are three things you couldn’t touch to the people of Begemdir:

    Their family, land and Orthodox Church. And it looks strange to you but a gun (Temenga) is part of the family. To the people of Begemdir (Gonder) touching his gun is like disrespecting his wife, so soon or later you are in trouble. No joke touching his wife or Temenga.That is why the primitive Woyane Tigre got in trouble trying to disarm Gegena Gonderee.

    The spirit of the church is simply in our blood. Our relationship starts when we are 40 days, and at the age of 4 you become ye Fidel temari, but at the age of 6 we go to modern school. Some will continue until they became Kese but that is a long way.

    • What got to do with Begemdir in the first place. Is Lalibela in Begemdir (Gonder)? Is it not in Wollo? I can tell you this about the Temenga though, a Gonder can rise Temenga but doesn’t know how to shoot. Gonders like you have inferiority complex and they pretend to look down on other Ethiopians. However, the bottom line is they are camouflaged under false pride. Follow the Bible and don’t try to look down at others.

      • The Truth,
        We are the same people. 98% of the people of Lalibela are from Begemdir or Gonder.
        I don’t know where you got that idea, but Gonderees don’t look down on anyone.

      • Yigerma,
        There is a 17 years plan of Woyane Tigre to exterminates us, so we need to organize and defend orseleves. Yes, we need to defend ourseleves.

        ማተቤ መለሰ ተሰማ
        በ20ኛው ክፍለ ዘመን የአርያንን ዘር በዓለም ላይ ማንገስን ሰነቆ የተነሳው የጀርመኑ ናዚ በይሁዲያዊያን ላይ የፈጸመው የዘር ማጥፋት ሰቆቃ ዛሪ ድረስ የዓለምን ህዝብ ሲያሳዝን ይገኛል። አሁን በ21ኛው ክፍለዘመን ደግሞ ወያኔ አማራንና የኦርቶዶክስ ተዋህዶ ሃይማኖት ተከታይ የሆነውን ኢትዮጵያውያን ከምድረገጽ ለማስወገድ ከጀርመኑ ናዚ ሺህ ጊዜ የከፋና በዚህ ዘመን ሰው ያደርገዋል ተብሎ የማይታስብ ዘግናኝ ድርጊት በመፈጸም ላይ ነው።

        • Orthodox is growing man .It was the Axumite that brought and strengthened the church .
          NICE TRY THOUGH ,

          • antiTalk,

            Stop revising our history, please.

            አማራ ትግሬና ሓድጎ says:

            “የአክሱም ነገሥታትን ስሞች ያያቹህ እንደሆነ እንደ ዕብራይስትጥ ጽርእ የባዕድ ቋንቋ ስም ያለው ካልሆነ በስተቀር ወይ ግእዝ ነው ወይ ደግሞ አማርኛ ነው እንጅ ትግርኛ ስም ያለው አንድም ንጉሥ የለም፡፡ ያ አካባቢ ትግሬ ወይም ትግራይ የተባለውም በ4ኛው መቶ ክ/ዘ በትንሹ ከአንድ ሽህ ሦስት መቶ ዓመታት በላይ በሀገሪቱ የቆየ የነበረውን አይሁድነት ትተው ክርስትናን መቀበላቸውንና ብሔራዊ ሃይማኖት አድርገው ማወጃቸውን ተከትሎ ከአይሁዶች ጋር በተፈጠረ አለመግባባት እስከ ዘጠነኛው መቶ ክ/ዘ (እስከ ዮዲት ጉዲት) ድረስ ሲቆራቆሱ ቆይተው በጉዲት ዘመን ግን በአሸናፊነት ወጥተው በአማራው (በክርስቲያኑ) ማለትም በአክሱማዊያኑ (በሀገራችን ክርስቲያን የሚለው አጠራር በሊቃውንተ ቤተክርስቲያን ዘንድ ነው እንጅ በሕዝቡ ዘንድ እስከ ቅርብ ጊዜ ድረስ አሁንም ቢሆን አይታወቅም፡፡ ብሔረሰቡ ምንም ይሁን ክርስቲያን ነኝ ለማለት አማራ ነኝ ነው የሚባለው፡፡ የሄም የሆነው ያለ ምክንያት አይደለም ክርስትናን ተቀብለው ብሔራዊ ሃይማኖት አድርገው ያወጁት አክሱማዊያን አማሮች ስለነበሩ ነው ሃይማኖቱ በእነሱ ስም ለመጠራት የበቃው)”

  4. በመላ አማራ አካባቢ ህዝባዊ አብዮቱ እየተቀጣጠለ ነው! (ሙሉነህ ዮሃንስ)
    — ጎንደር ላይ ወያኔ በጭንቅ ውስጥ ነው!
    — ወያኔ የራሱን ባለስልጣናት እያሰረ ትርምስ ውስጥ ነው!
    — በመላ አማራ አካባቢ ህዝባዊ አብዮቱ እየተቀጣጠለ ነው!
    ሙሉነህ ዮሃንስ

    በሰሜን ጎንደር የቆላማው ወገራ ገበሬዎች ለወያኔ ሰራዊት የምግብ አቅርቦት አናደርግም በማለት ስላመፁ እንኳን ሰው የቆላው አየር ንብረቱ ጭምር የተዋጋው የወያኔ ሰራዊት ከሶስት ቀን በፊት ቦታዉን ለቆ መውጣቱ ታውቋል። ነገር ግን ዱር ቤቴ ያለውን ታጋይ ህዝብ ለማዘናጋትም ሊሆን ስለሚችል ጥንቃቄ እንዲደረግ ከጎበዝ አለቆች ማሳሰቢያ ተላልፏል።

    የራሱን ሹሞች እንኳን ማመን የተሳነው ወያኔ እስሩን ቀጥሎበታል። የጎንደር ከተማ መዘጋጃ ቤት ሀላፊ የነበረዉ ፍቃዱ ስለመታሰሩ መረጃ ደርሶናል።
    የሰሜን ጎንደር ማረሚያ ቤቶች በዉክልና ሀላፊነት ተሰጥቶት የነበረው ትዉልዱ ከወቅን 5 km ርቀት ላይ በምትገኘው የገጠር ቀበሌ የሆነው ኢንስፔክተር ሰጠኝ ሙሌ ኮ/ል ደመቀን ከአፈና ለማስጣል በነበረው ውጊያ የተሰዋውን የአርማጭሆ ስመጥር ጀግና ሲሳይ ቀብር ላይ በለቅሶ ስነ ስርዐት ወቅት ፎክረሀል በማለት ታስሯል።

    ጎንደር ላይ በአዲስ መልኩ ሆን ብለዉ ሙስናን ሰበብ በማድረግ እስካሁን 8 ባለሀብቶች ሲታሰሩ ቀሪዎቹ ጎንደርን ለቀዉ እየሄዱ ነዉ። ለማሰር የታቀደው 35 የበርሃ አራሾችን መሆኑ ስለታወቀ ጥንቃቄ ይደረግ።
    ወያኔ ህዝቡንም የራሷን ሰወችም በጅምላ ማሰር ላይ መሆኗ የደረሰባትን ታላቅ ውድቀት ያሳያል። በንፅፅር ደግሞ እጅግ ብዙ የጎበዝ አለቆች በመላ ጎንደር ለወያኔ በሚያስሸብር መልኩ ህዝቡን እያደራጁ ነው። ሰሞኑን በጎጃም (የመምህራን አመፅና እስር)፣ በወሎ (የዩኒቨርሲቲ ተማሪዎች አመፅ) በሰሜን ሸዋ (የደብረ ብርሃን የዩንቨርስቲ መቃጠልና) አዳዲስ ህዝባዊ እንቅስቃሴዎች መስተናገዳቸው በአማራው ህዝብ በሙሉ የወያኔ መሰረት
    ተሸርሽሮ ማለቁን እያበሰረ ነው።
    የነፃነት ጥያቄ በአፈና አይመለስም!
    ህዝብ ያሸንፋል©!
    ሙሉነህ ዮሃንስ

      • antiTalk,
        Asfaw wrote:

        “The Amara awakening should spell nothing but the salvation of the maligned giants as well as the liberation of our country from the TPLF/Woyane enemy, an enemy no nation should have the misfortune to have. Therefore, the belated Amara insurrection should be something all Ethiopians embrace to reclaim what is left of their mortally wounded and shredded country.”

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