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Christmas in Ethiopia: Customs of a January Celebration

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 11/25/2012

Most people in Ethiopia are Christian, and of the Coptic Church, which follows the Julian calendar. Christmas is celebrated in January and involves religious services, games and feasting - but, no gifts! A three-day long festival, unique to Ethiopian Christmas, begins January 19.

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    Following the Julian Calendar of the Coptic Church

    Ethiopia is a very interesting country. For one thing, it is Christian -- and has been for much, much longer than many European countries! Another interesting fact about Ethiopia is that it has always been independent. It was never colonized like other countries of Africa. In very ancient times, it was a rich country - so rich that Solomon King of Israel and the Pharaohs of Egypt would send their ships there to engage in trade.

    Melkm Ganna: Merry Christmas! This important holiday is celebrated in Ethiopia as a religious holiday, but it is a very social event. Gift-giving is not a prominent feature of Christmas in Ethiopia. Since the Ethiopians are Coptic Orthodox and are on the Julian Calendar, they celebrate Christmas on January 7.

    The religious services are held in two types of churches: ancient ones, built nearly a millennium ago (in at least one case, supposedly by white men, possibly French Crusaders). These old churches are rectangular and were carved in situ from solid volcanic rock. The modern churches, like many dwellings, are circular and in the case of churches, are arranged in three concentric circles. The middle circle is for the congregation. The choir sings in the outer circle and the center is for receiving communion.

    At Christmas, the faithful wear white and as they enter the church, they get a candle. Mass lasts as long as three hours and the people hear the dabtaras, or priests, chant the meleket -- the Coptic church's version of chanting. After the religious service, the young men play a game that seems to resemble hockey or LaCrosse. This game is also called Ganna and Ethiopian Christmas lore has it that the shepherds played it in the fields when the angels announced the birth of Christ.

    Timkat

    Twelve days after Ethiopian Christmas, that is, on January 19, Timkat begins. It is a festival unique to Ethiopian Christmas. During this three-day holiday, the adult members of the congregation wear a garment, like a shawl, known as a shamma. The children wear crowns and robes that identify them as members of this or that church youth group. The priests were red and white robes, turbans and carry beautiful, embroidered umbrellas.

    During the three days of Timkat, the young men play a game called yeferas guks, a sort of jousting game played on horseback.

    As nearly everywhere, food is part of all celebrations. After the religious services of Timkat, Ethiopians eat injerá, a type of flat bread cooked over an open fire. They also eat doro wat, a spicy chicken dish. These foods can often be found now in the USA, since there are more and more Ethiopian restaurants, even in modest-sized towns. The injerá serves as bowl and spoon -- no utensils are used!