Merry Christmas – Melkam Yelidet Beaal
Following the ancient Julian calendar – rather than our Gregorian calendar – Ethiopians celebrate the holiday on January 7. Traditionally referred to as Ganna, an Ethiopian Christmas typically involves a day of fasting, followed by church services and a feast that includes stew, vegetables and sourdough bread. Though most friends and families do not exchange gifts, communities gather to play games and sports, and enjoy the festivities together before returning to work.
The day before Ganna, people fast all day. The next morning at dawn, everyone dresses in white. Most Ethiopians don a traditional shamma, a thin, white cotton wrap with brightly colored stripes across the ends. The shamma is worn somewhat like a toga. Urban Ethiopians might put on white Western garb. Then everyone goes to the early mass at four o’clock in the morning.
Modern Ethiopian churches are built around three concentric circles. The choir assembles in the outer circle. Each person entering the church is given a candle. The congregation walks around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding their flickering candles. They gather in the second circle, standing throughout the mass, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the holiest space in the church, where the priest serves Holy Communion.
Around the time of Ganna, the men and boys play a game that is also called ganna. It is somewhat like hockey, played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball.
They eat wat, a thick, spicy stew of meat, vegetables, and sometimes eggs as well. The wat is served from a beautifully decorated watertight basket onto a “plate” of injera, which is flat sourdough bread. Pieces of injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat.
Celebrating an Ethiopian Christmas
Organise a coffee morning for the New Year – ideally on 7 January – to host your own Ethiopian Christmas. Dress up in white, attend mass, and drink coffee with friends and parishioners afterwards. You could either use the parish hall or you might invite people home to celebrate with you. Perhaps you might also serve a helping of Ethiopian stew.
Twelve days after Ganna, on January 19, Ethiopians begin the three-day celebration called Timkat, which commemorates the baptism of Christ. The children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups they belong to. The grown-ups wear the shamma. The priests wear their red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas.
The music of Ethiopian instruments makes the Timkat procession a very festive event. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks. A long, T-shaped prayer stick called a makamiya taps out the walking beat and also serves as a support for the priest during the long church service that follows. Church officials called dabtaras study hard to learn the musical chants, melekets, for the ceremony.
Ganna and Timkat are not occasions for giving gifts in Ethiopia. If a child receives any gift at all, it is usually a small gift of clothing. Religious observances, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.