Ethiopia’s Festivals and Celebrations

Celebrations in Ethiopia are great and colorful events, mostly religious, and frequently take place over several days. Important Christian holidays include Meskel, Christmas, Timkat, Kiddus Yohannes and Easter. Timkat, which marks Christ’s baptism, is the most colorful event of the year.  In September, the two-day feast of Meskal marks the finding of the True Cross.  Kiddus Yohannes, New Year’s Day comes on September 11, which coincides with the end of the season of heavy rains and the beginning of spring. 

​Muslim holidays are based on the lunar calendar and fall at different times each year. The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is devoted to Ramadan, which is marked by fasting. One of the great Muslim feasts of the year is ‘Id Al Fatr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. The ‘Id al Adha is the feast marking Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as commanded by God.  On these days, after praying and listening to the imam (religious leader), Muslim Ethiopians sacrifice animals and distribute part of the meat to the poor. Wearing new clothes, they visit friends and relatives as well as family graves.  Horse races are also traditional on these days.  Muslims celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on September 20 and mark the anniversaries of numerous martyrs.

Enkutatash – Ethiopian New Year (September 11th)

This festival celebrates both the New Year and the Feast of John the Baptist at the end of the long spring rains, when the Highlands are covered with wild flowers. Ethiopian children, clad in brand-new clothes, dance through the villages giving bouquets of flowers and painted pictures to each household.
September 11 is both New Year’s Day and the feast of St John the Baptist. The day is called Enkutatash meaning the “gift of jewels.” When the famous Queen of Sheba retuned from her journey to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, her chiefs welcomed her back by replenishing her treasury with enku, or jewels. The 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. In the evening every house lights a bonfire and there is much singing and dancing.
The main religious celebration takes place at the 14th-century Kidus Yohannes church in the city of Genet in the Gonder Region. Three days of prayers, psalms and hymns, and massive colorful processions mark the advent of the New Year. Closer to Addis Ababa, the Raguel Church, on top of Entoto Mountain north of the city, has the largest and most spectacular religious celebration. Enkutatash is not exclusively a religious holiday but is also a celebration of springtime and renewed life. Modern Enkutatash is also the season for exchanging formal New Year greetings and cards among urban people.

Ethiopian Christmas – Genna (7 January)​

Ethiopia still retains the ancient Julian calendar in which Christmas falls on 7 January (of the Gregorian calendar.) People in towns and villages typically dress up in their finest to celebrate.
The Ethiopian name given to Christmas is Ledet or Genna which comes from the word Gennana, meaning “imminent” to express the coming of the Lord and the freeing of mankind from sin.
Genna festivities begin early in the day, as early as 6:00am when people gather in churches for mass. For the clergy it has begun much earlier, 43 days before, with the fasting period leading up to Genna. This pensive fasting period is required of the clergy and is known as the fast of the prophets. The fast of Advent is carried out to cleanse the body and soul in preparation for the day of the birth of Christ.
Everyone stands throughout the worship service for up to three hours. The clergy and Debtera (scholars versed in the liturgy and music of the church) lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has been for over a 1,500 years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity.  This ancient rite culminates in the spectacular procession of the Tabot (the Tabot is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant) and carried on top of a priest’s head). The procession makes its way three times around the church amidst ululation and chiming church bells, dazzling umbrellas and colorful attire of the clergy and a throng of Christians who follow the procession with lighted candles.
Afterwards, people disperse to their homes to feast and the clergy break their fast.  Food served at Christmas includes Doro Wat and Injera, a spicy chicken stew eaten with the sourdough pancake-like bread. Often, tej, a local wine-like drink made from honey, accompanies the feast.
Christmas is quietly shared and celebrated in groups of friends and family. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas festivities in Ethiopia. Only small gifts are exchanged amongst family and friends at home. The joy of giving and sharing, extends beyond religious beliefs and spreads the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind throughout the world.

Fasika – Easter (May – date varies)

Easter is celebrated after a 55 day period of fasting (Hudade or Abye Tsome). Orthodox Christians do not eat meat or dairy products for the entire 55 days. Vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, fruit, and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by injera and/or bread are all that is eaten duirng these days. The first meal of the day is taken after 3 PM during the fasting days, except Saturdays and Sundays, where a meal is allowed after the morning service. 
On Easter eve people go to church and celebrate with candles which are lit during a colorful Easter mass service which begins at about 6 PM and ends at about 2 AM. Like the other festivals, Easter is colorfully celebrated at Axum and Lalibela. Everyone goes home to break the fast with chicken or lamb, slaughtered the previous night after 6:00 pm. Like Christmas, Easter is also a day of family reunion and an expression of good wishes with the exchange of gifts (i.e. lamb, goat or loaf of bread).

Meskel – Finding of the True Cross (September 26th and 27th)

Meskel, one of the major Ethiopian Orthodox festivals is celebrated for two days beginning September 26th. Legend has it that in the year 326, Queen Helena (Empress Helen) the Mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Unable to find the Holy Sepulchre, she prayed for help and was directed by the smoke from a burning fire as to where the cross was buried. After unearthing the Holy Cross, Queen Helena lit torches heralding her success.  In the Middle Ages, the Patriarch of Alexandria gave the Ethiopian Emperor Dawit half of the True Cross in return for protection afforded to the Coptic Christians. A fragment of the True Cross is reputedly held at the Gishen Mariam, about 70 kilometers northwest of Dessie. Ethiopians have been celebrating this day for millennium.
There are two occasions on Meskel. The first is Demera (September 26), in which bonfires are built topped by a cross to which flowers are tied. The flowers are Meskel Daisies. The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church orchestrates the lightening ceremony. After the bonfires are blessed they are lit and dancing and singing begins around them. Priests in full ceremonial dress sing around the bonfire.  Little Demera are also built at individual houses or villages. After some time, splinters from the bundles of burning wood collapse. Which direction they fall is very significant: north, south, east or west Interpretations are soon conjectured as to whether the fields of grain are going to be plentiful or not, or there is peace all year round, etc.  At the closing of the Demera, a rain shower is expected to fall to help put the fire out. If the rain falls and the fire is extinguished, there is a belief that the year will be prosperous. The day after the Demera is Meskel. This day is observed with plenty of food and drink as believers go to the spot of the Demera and, using ashes from the fire, mark their heads with the sign of the cross. The festival coincides with the mass blooming of the golden yellow Meskel daisies. The best place to see the Meskel Festival is in the capital Addis Ababa at the famous Meskel Square. But all along the Historic route (Bahir Dar, Gonder, Axum, and Lalibela) and in other major towns, Meskel is colorfully celebrated.

Timkat – Ethiopian Epiphany (January 19th or 20th)

Celebrating the Baptism of Christ, every January 19th (January 20 during leap year), Timkat is the greatest colorful festival of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. It celebrates the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.  The eve of Timket is called Ketera. This is when the Tabots of each church are carried out in procession to a river or pool of water where the next day’s celebration will take place. A special tent is set up where each Tabot rests as members of the church choirs chant hymns. This is accompanied by a special dance by the priests with their prayer sticks and sistera, the beating of drums, ringing of bells, and blowing of trumpets. 

The Tabot symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Law, which Moses received on Mount Sinai. It is the Tabot rather than the church building, which is consecrated, and it is accorded extreme reverence. When the Tabot is carried out, it is wrapped in brocade or velvet “like the mantle of Christ” and carried on the head of a priest with colorful ceremonial umbrellas shading it. The priests pray throughout the night and mass is performed about 2:00 am the next day. Near dawn the people go to the water and attend the prayers. After the prayer, a senior priest uses a golden processional cross to bless the water and extinguishes a burning consecrated candle in the water. Then he sprinkles the water on the assembled congregation in commemoration of Christ’s baptism.  Many of the more fervent leap fully dressed into the water to renew their vows. 
The Timkat ceremony is merely a commemoration, not an annual rebaptism. After the baptism, the Tabots of each church, except St. Michael’s church, start their way back to their respective churches. The elders march solemnly, accompanied by singing, leaping priests and young men, the beating of staffs and prayer sticks recalling the ancient rites of the Old Testament (11 Sam.Chap.6) 
The next day, 20 Jan, is the feast of Michael the Archangel, Ethiopia’s most popular saint. And it is only on this morning that the Tabot of St. Michael’s is returned to his church, also accompanied by the singing and dancing of priests and locals with their colorful dress. Thus ends the three-day celebration, a unique ceremony of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world. 
The best place to attend the event is Lalibela, Gonder or Addis Ababa. In Addis Ababa many tents are pitched in the grassy field at Jan Meda, to the northeast of the city center. At 2:00am a mass is attended by crowds who’ve brought picnics to enjoy by the light of oil lamps. At dawn the priest extinguishes a candle burning on a pole set in a nearby river using a ceremonial cross. Some in the congregation leap into the river. The Tabots are then taken back to the Churches in procession, accompanied by horsemen, while the festivities continue.