Ethiopia is often described as the land of God and mystery. Ethiopia uniquely remained with her original name, territorial integrity, national unity and her Christian faith. There are numerous sacred places in Ethiopia – churches, monasteries, sites for religious festivals and holy water. All these highly Christian venerated places began with the first St. Mary Church of Zion. Ethiopia is a land where religion plays such an important part in many people’s lifestyles, so the numerous annual festivals and ceremonies provide many high points to the Ethiopian Calendar.
Genna (Christmas) – 7th January
Genna or Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated each year on the 7th of January in memory of the great joy at the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Genna is also called Ledet. Ledet simply means ‘Birth’ and Genna on the other hand, according to elders, comes from the word Gennana (eminent) to express the coming of the Lord and the freeing of mankind from his sins. All the enchantment at the celebration of Genna Festival is based on what St. Ephrem expressed to Lord, ‘You came to the earth and every creature became happy.’
Led by a star, the wise men from the East found the child and bowed down to worship him. They presented him gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, they went back home dancing joyously.
It is with this belief that Genna is celebrated in Ethiopia with this timeless joy and with full weight of the religious messages. It is celebrated after 43 days of fasting, known as Tsome Gehad (advent), with a spectacular procession, which begins at 6 am and lasts until 9 am. During the Christmas celebration; priests, deacons and all the worshipers sing the Christmas music of the church and lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has been for over a thousand years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity. This ancient rite continues with the procession of the Tabot (The Ark of the Covenant) carried on top of a priest head, making its way three times around the church amidst ululation and chiming church bells, dazzling umbrellas and colorful attire of the priests as well as a throng of Christians who follow the procession with lighted candles.
After the mass (service), people go home to break the fast with the meat of chicken or lamb or beef accompanied by injera (Ethiopian flat bread) and the traditional drinks Tella ( barely brewed drink)and Tej (honey brewed drink).
Timket / Asterio (Epiphany) – 19th January
Timket or Feast of Epiphany is the greatest festival of the year. Less than two weeks after Christmas, Timket is celebrated colorfully with profound enchantment to express faith and respect for the day on which Jesus Christ was baptizes by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Ethiopian Christians celebrate this festival of high religious and cultural significance with a view that Christ was baptized not for his sins, but to set on examples that we too would be baptized.
The Holy Tabot, replica of the Ark of the Covenant, is removed from each church around the country the day before the celebration and taken to a central area where the ceremony will take place. The following morning, the church officials resplendent in the gorgeous regalia, assemble around the Tabot and sprinkle holy water over all the Christians present and receive the renewals of their vows. If the body of water is large enough, some people will immerse themselves. After this is done the congregation follows the bishops, elders and clergy as the Tabot is carried back to the church from whence it came accompanied by much singing and dancing.
Fasika (Easter) – in April
Faska is one of the greatest celebrations and the most solemn of all festivals for the Ethiopian Christians. where the celebrations include the sacred music and dance unique to the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Easter is celebrated in memory of the Christ’s resurrection after 55 days of fasting in the Lent Season, named as Hudade or Aby Tsome. Orthodox Tewahido Christians do not eat meat and diary products for the whole 55 days to commemorate the 40 days of fasting of Jesus experienced before crucifixion. Only vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, fruits and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by Injera and /or bread are eaten on these days. The first meal of the day is taken after 3 pm (9 o’clock in the after noon Ethiopian time) during the fasting days, except Saturday and Sunday, where a meal is allowed after the morning service.
On Fasika day, gifts are prepared for children and most people are resplendent in their best clothes, usually the dazzling white traditional dress. Everyone spends Easter Eve at the Church praying until 3 am when it is announced that Christ has risen! This time, there is a stunning ceremony at all churches, priests chanting with traditional church music or Zema, and complete with singing, clapping of hands, and the haunting ululation and enchantment of all the worshipers.
Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) – 11th September
Enqutatash means the “gift of jewels”. When the famous Queen of Sheba returned from her expensive journey to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, her chiefs welcomed her bolts by replenishing her treasury with jewels. The time of the Ethiopian New Year, Enkutatash or Kidus Yohannes starts with Spring , Tsedey, falling on the 1st of Meskerem / 11th of September or the 12th of September in the leap year. This spring festival has been celebrated since these early times and as the rains come to their abrupt end, dancing and singing can be heard at every village in the green countryside.This is also the beginning of the harvest season. It is thus the time of parties and weddings in Ethiopia, and it has a special place for children as they get new presents, books and clothes for the new school year, which starts a few days after Enkutatash. Ethiopian New Year is colorfully celebrated mainly by young girls who exchange New Year greetings among around their villages singing and dancing all in their new dresses. Young boys too present their drawings for the New Year to neighbors and to people they know very well.
Meskal (The Finding of the True Cross) – 27th September
Meskal means cross in Geez (the classic language of Ethiopia now used predominantly in the Ethiopian Orthodox church). Ethiopia claims possession of more than a thousand types of cross designs in its treasured heritage-an uncontested world record.
Meskal is another major religious festival, which falls on the 27th of September and it has been celebrated in Ethiopia for more than 1,600 years. It is celebrated in memory of the Finding of the True Cross by the Empress Eleni, mother of Constantine the Great on March 19, 326 AD. This prominent festival has been celebrated throughout Ethiopia for centuries. Vast bonfires are lit countrywide the night before the celebration and on the day itself there are dances and feasting for everyone. This festival coincides with the mass blooming of the golden yellow ‘meskal daisies’ called adey abeba in Amharic.
In Addis Ababa, the celebration starts early in the afternoon, when a huge procession of flaming torches approaching the main square. The marchers include priests, students, brass bands, and people pulling floats bedecked with huge crosses. Thousands gather at the square to join in, and as evening darkens, the flames grow brighter. Dancing, feasting, and even gun salutes mark the occasion, and not until dawn does the burning pyramid finally consume itself. Any national holiday such as Meskal or Timkat is an occasion for wearing traditional costumes, and we enjoy mingling with the throngs of worshippers in Addis on Meskal Eve. Traditional instruments are usually played during important church occasions, and we may also see costumed horsemen, with their horses also gaily caparisoned for the occasion. (From two days to two weeks visit for each festival along with other fascinating destinations)