Public Holidays / Festivals
Ethiopian New Year (Enkutatash)
Meskerem 1st /September 11th
Enkutatash or Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on September 11th according to the Western or Gregorian calendar. The Ethiopian year is divided into 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month of 5 days and 6 days in leap year. The Ethiopian calendar is 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar from January to September and 7 years behind between September 11 and January 8.
We measure time is also different from the West. The clock starts at 6am western time and runs until 6pm. Therefore, 8 o’clock in western time would be 2 o’clock Ethiopian time. Because Ethiopia is close to the Equator, the sun rises at around 00.30 Ethiopian time and sets at around 12.45 in the evening (6.45 western equivalent) all year round. Ethiopia is 3 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
The years run in a four year cycle bearing the names of the Gospels with the year of John or Yohannes being the leap year.
Enkutatash is an important festival. After three months of heavy rains the sun comes out creating a beautiful clear fresh atmosphere. The highland fields turn to gold as the Meskal daisies burst into flower. When Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, returned to Ethiopia after her famous visit to King Solomon, her chiefs welcomed her forward by giving her “enku” or jewels. Enkutatash which means “gift of jewels”‘ has been celebrated ever since in spring. Meskerem (September) is seen as a month of transition from the old year to the new. It is a time to express hopes and dreams for the future.
Meskel – the finding of the True Cross
Meskel in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is an annual religious holiday commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (Saint Helena) in the fourth century.
Meskel occurs on 17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27, Gregorian calendar, or September 28 in leap years). “Meskel” (or “Meskal” or “Mesqel”, there are various ways to transliterate from Ge’ez to Latin script) is Ge’ez for “cross”.
The Meskel celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the belief that Queen Eleni had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she shall make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke raised high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
This Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself, according to local traditions. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Afterwards, charcoal from the remains of the fire is collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross. some believing that it “marks the ultimate act in the cancellation of sins, while others hold that the direction of the smoke and the final collapse of the heap indicate the course of future events — just as the cloud of smoke the Lord over the Tabernacle offered guidance to the children of Israel (Exod. 40:34-38).”
One explanation for the high rank this festival has in the church calendar is that it’s believed that a part of the true Cross has been brought to Ethiopia from Egypt. It is said to be kept at Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross shape.
The Ethiopian Christmas known as Ganna is celebrated on January 7th. This celebration colorfully celebrated at Lalibela. Men and boys sit separately from girls and women. Also the choir sings from the outside circle.
People receive candles as they enter the church. After lighting the candles everyone walks around the church three times, and then stands throughout the mass, which may last up to three hours.
Food served at Christmas usually includes injera, a sourdough pancake like bread. Injera serves as both plate and fork. Doro wat, a spicy chicken stew might be the main meal. A piece of the injera is used to scoop up the wat. Baskets decorated beautifully are used to serve the wat.
On Eve the city is crowded with pilgrims from all parts of the country. They remain outdoors all night, praying and chanting. In the morning, a colorful procession makes its way to a nearby hilltop where a service is held. Three young men march at the head of the crowd, lashing whips from left to right to keep the people in line. Those who worship are fed with bread and wine that has been blessed by priests. After the service is over the rest of the day is spent dancing, playing sport and feasting.
Christmas Celebration at Lalibela
Epiphany / Timket
Timkat or Ethiopian Epiphany, is held on the 19th January. It is the biggest celebration of the year in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church calendar. Timket celebrates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan and every Church takes its replica of the Ark of the Covenant, The Tabot, wraps it in wonderful cloth and parades it to the place where the ritual baptism will take place. Many churches in a parade of singing, color and cheerful joy.
It really is something to behold with thousands of worshipers leading and following the priests carrying the Arks protected from the sun by beautifully embroidered umbrellas. They say the weather is always perfect on Timket – this year there were some showers but only after the Arks were safely back in their Churches. It starts enormous and then at each turning point, different churches go their own way. The crowds at the start must be awe inspiring.
The best place to see Timket is apparently Lalibela where the ancient rock hewn Churches stand.
Fasika (Easter) is celebrated after 55 days severe Lent fasting (Hudade or Abye Tsome). Orthodox Tewahedo Christians do not eat meat and diary products for the whole 55 days. Vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, fruit and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by injera and/or bread are only eaten on these days. The fist meal of the day is taken after 3 PM (9 o’clock in the afternoon Ethiopian time) 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 (12 o’clock in the evening Ethiopian time) and ends at about 2 AM (8 o’clock after mid-night Ethiopian time). Everyone goes home to break the fast with the meat of chicken or lamb, slaughtered the previous night after 6 PM, accompanied with injera and traditional drinks (i.e. tella or tej). Like Christmas, Easter is also a day of family re-union, an expression of good wishes with exchange of gifts (i.e. lamb, goat or loaf of bread)