Festivals & Holidays
Genna (Ethiopian Christmas)
Genna is Ethiopian Christmas, and coincides with other Orthodox Christmas celebrations around the world. The feast marks the end of the 40-day fasting period of Advent. On Christmas Eve, the faithful participate in church services through the night before celebrating with family and friends on Christmas day.
Lalibela is the most popular place to celebrate Genna, as thousands of pilgrims flock to the holy city for this celebration.
The Ethiopian celebration of Timket (also known as Epiphany), is a symbolic reenactment of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. For Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, it serves as a renewal of their baptismal vows.
Timket is a two-day festival, starting the day before, when the church tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is taken from the church to a nearby location, usually near a body of water. This is representative of Jesus coming to the River Jordan. The tabot spends the night in this location while the priests and other faithful hold a vigil through the night. In the morning the water is blessed and is then sprinkled on the gatherers (or they may chose to bathe in the water), renewing their baptismal vows. Long parades then carry the tabot back home to the church while the revelers sing and dance.
Gondar is a popular place to witness Timket, as the Bath of Fasilidas provides a stunning backdrop for the festivities. Lalibela is another popular location, as is Addis Ababa, where it is held at the Jan Meda fairgrounds.
Fasika (Orthodox Easter)
Fasika is Ethiopian Easter and is celebrated in conjunction with Orthodox Easter celebrations around the world. Fasika is the most important holiday in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar and follows a long 55-day fast, where no meat or dairy products are consumed. Strict followers generally consume one meal of vegetables and lentils during this time. Church services are attended on the eve before the holiday, where revelers participate in a colorful service lit with candles. The following day, families and friends celebrate Fasika with special feasts that mark the end of the long fast. Doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, is the most traditional food served in all households. Celebrations continue for the following week, with an unofficial “second Fasika” the following weekend.
Axum has a colorful procession for Palm Sunday (known as Hosanna), the week before Fasika which is well worth a visit. Like most holidays, the celebration takes place the night before the actually holiday (Saturday night).
Enkutatash, which means “Gift of Jewels” is the celebration of the Ethiopian New Year. Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar, which consists of 13 months – 12 months each with 30 days and a final month with 5 days (6 days in leap year). The Julian calendar is 7 years and 8 months behind the Gregorian calendar, which is used throughout most of the Western world. In 2007 (Gregorian calendar), Ethiopia rang in the year 2000 and the new Ethiopian Millennium with colorful celebrations throughout the country.
Enkutatash happens to come near the end of a long rainy season, coloring the green landscapes with bright yellow flowers (called the Meskel Flower, or adei abeba in Amharic) and giving great reason to celebrate the new harvest. Torches of dry wood are burned in front of houses on New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, girls dressed in new clothes go door-to-door singing songs. Families and friends celebrate together with large feasts.
This day also happens to coincide with the saint’s day of St. John the Baptist. This religious ceremony can be seen at the Kostete Yohannes church in the village of Gaynt, where celebrations are carried out for three days. Just outside of Addis Ababa, on the Entoto Mountain, Raguel Church has the largest religious celebration in the country.
Meskel (Finding of the True Cross), is the celebration of the finding of remnants of the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. The word “meskel” means “cross” in Amharic. According to Christian tradition, St. Eleni (Empress Helena) discovered the hiding place of three crosses used at the crucifixion of Jesus. In her dream, Eleni was told she should make a bonfire; the direction of the smoke would tell her the exact location of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. She followed the directions from her dream, and the smoke landed exactly where the cross was buried.
Meskel celebrations begin the night before with large bonfires topped with a cross and decorated with meskel flowers. The bonfire preparations are blessed and burned while revelers sing and dance around the fire, locally called demera. It is believed that the direction of the smoke will predict the future for the year to come. After the demera has burnt out, the faithful mark crosses on their foreheads with the ash.
The biggest Meskel celebration is in Addis Ababa, held in the centrally-located Meskel Square. Gondar, Axum and Lalibela are also good locations to celebrate this festival. Probably the most exuberant celebrations take place in the region of the Gurage people, southwest from Addis.