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Christmas in Ethiopia

Christmas in Ethiopia

As we approach the holiday season in Canada, you may be curious about what this time of year looks like for the children you support in Ethiopia. We wanted to share some of the traditions connected to Christmas in Ethiopia to connect you to some of the festivities that the Love and Hope children and families may participate in. We also want to note that as a culturally and spiritually diverse country, while many Ethiopians identify as members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, not all Ethiopians celebrate Christmas.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations, dating back to 2500 B.C.  The nation largely converted to Christianity in the early 4th century around 330 making Ethiopia one of the oldest Christian nations. While many parts of the world celebrate Christmas on December 25th, Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar; Ethiopians celebrate Christmas Day which is called Ganna on January 7th. Ganna is a religious occasion with many wonderful, unique, traditions. The giving of gifts is not central to the Ethiopian Christmas tradition, rather the focus is on ritual and ceremony and spending time with family and friends. Neighbors come and go, and the holiday is known for plenty of warmth, laughter, and conversation. Food-based traditions are also an important part of the holiday.

Many Ethiopians carry out a 43-day fast in the lead up to Christmas day. The fast begins on November 25th, a day known as Tsome Nebiyat (Fast of the Prophets) and is held through to January 7th. During this fasting period, Ethiopians eat just one meal a day for 43 days. The daily meal should be free from meat, dairy, and eggs. Ganna begins by fasting the entire day prior to January 7th.  At dawn on the morning of, Ethiopians dress in all white usually donning a traditional shamma (a thin white cotton piece of cloth with brightly colored stripes across the ends) and head to church around 4am after breaking their 43-day fast at daybreak with a light meal. Later in the day a Doro Wat, a spicy stew containing meat and vegetables, and sometimes topped with an egg is eaten. Injera, Ethiopian flatbreads, are used to scoop up and eat the stew.

Following this meal there will be a coffee ceremony. Coffee beans will be roasted, and the pan will be passed around for everyone to savor the aroma. Coffee is often served with popcorn and sipped amid burning incense. After the coffee ceremony, special homemade drinks will be served depending on the household. Tej (a popular Ethiopian wine made from fermented honey, without grapes), Tela (a type of home-made beer made from a shrub called Gesho, and a strong alcoholic drink called Araki, made from local plants and herbs. Araki has a strong punch to it, and somewhat tastes like gin.

Men and boys gather during the day to play a ball and stick game also known as ganna. It is a game similar to field hockey, but with less rules. Players use a curved stick and a round wooden ball. The goal is to try and knock a rur, or wooden ball, into a small hole in the ground. This game is played because according to local tradition, the biblical shepherds were playing this game while tending their flocks on the night that Jesus was born. It is also Ethiopian tradition that one of the wise men that visited Jesus was from Ethiopia.

As you may see, there are some similarities between how many of us here in Canada spend the holiday season – with friends and family, enjoying good company, good food, and games – and how many of our connections in Ethiopia celebrate Christmas. There are also some notable differences – particularly when the holiday falls, and the giving and receiving of gifts.

As we approach December 25th and January 7th, all of us at Vulnerable Children would like to wish you and yours a safe and happy holiday.