How to Have an Ethiopian Christmas

Christmas is a major holiday in Ethiopia. More than half of the population of Ethiopia is Orthodox Christian. The celebration occurs on January 7, the Feast of the Epiphany, instead of December 25. Ethiopia has its own calendar and time system, totally unique from any other country. 7AM is 1AM, the year 2007 is currently 1999 and there are thirteen months in the year. The Ethiopian Orthodox church celebrates Christmas on January 7 as does the Russian Orthodox Church.

On Christmas Eve, January 6, the city is crowded with pilgrims and tourists from all parts of the world. The people remain outdoors all night, praying and chanting. On January 7, the Ethiopian Christmas known as Ganna is celebrated. The word Ganna is used interchangeably with the word Christmas, to mean the birth of Jesus Christ (leddat). This celebration takes place in ancient churches carved from solid volcanic rock of that day and also in more modern churches that are designed in three concentric circles. Men and boys sit separately from the girls and women. People receive candles as they enter their church. After lighting the candles, everyone walks around the church three times, and then they all stand throughout the church service which may last up to three hours. After the service, the rest of the day is spent dancing, playing sports and feasting.

The preparation of the feast is an important part of the day in Ethiopia. A typical Ethiopian feast for the Christmas meal includes a main course, such as doro wat ( a spicy chicken stew), injera bread (Which is a flat round bread) and homemade wine or beer. The injera bread is used to scoop and eat the food, thereby replacing ordinary utensils.

Gift giving in an Ethiopian Christmas celebration is a very small part of this ceremony. Children, if they receive gifts, usually receive simple presents such as clothing. But, a very important part of the celebration is a sporting event called gena. This game is a form of field hockey in which sticks with hooks at one end are used. The game is played by having two opposing teams trying to outscore each other hitting a ball with their sticks. Usually, the sticks and balls are made from locally grown trees. In Ethiopia, the opposing teams often represent certain regions and the rivalry in these games can be intense. According to tradition, shepherds celebrated when they heard of Jesus’ birth by playing this such game.

The Evangelical Church has greatly increased in size and respect in the past 50 years. They observe Christmas on the same date as Orthodox Christians, but in quite a different way. They assemble in churches on Christmas Eve and observe the occasion with great respect and seriousness. The women come to church in their beautiful national dresses, hymns are sung, and the story of Christ’s birth is read from the Bible. In recent years, the custom of setting up Christmas trees in the Evangelical Church and their parishioner’s homes has been taken from the western churches. In the Orthodox Church, there are still no Christmas trees. The problem now is that western civilization has come through to Ethiopia and much tradition is being overshadowed by the western ways of celebrating Christmas as in Santa Claus, presents, Christmas trees and the ways of the west.

If you would like to honor the Ethiopian Christmas tradition, the national dress and religious celebration should greatly overshadow the gift-giving. Consider having the children play games, and serve chicken stew with thick flatbread – and no utensils!