Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th each year. Most of the country's population is Orthodox, and Christmas celebrations last for weeks. Here is our quick guide to Ethiopian Christmas or Ganna.
The information in this article is taken from The Rough Guide to Ethiopia your essential guide for visiting Ethiopia.
Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, or on the Ge'ez Ethiopian calendar, the 29th day of Tahsas. This is when most orthodox populations celebrate Christmas, including Greek, Ukrainian, Serbian, Russian and Egyptian Orthodox christians. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers this to be the day that Jesus Christ was born.
The Ethiopian Christmas celebrations — also known as Ganna — are slightly different than those in the West. Ganna is a religious holiday, and gift-giving or Santa Claus does not play a role.
Orthodox Ethiopians typically fast for the forty days leading up to Christmas Day. This is known as 'Fast of the Prophets' (Tsome Nebiyat) and it means going on a diet without meat, dairy, or alcohol. On Christmas eve it is not uncommon to see locals carrying live chickens or other large portions of meat to their homes.
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After many days of fasting, Christmas Day comes with a celebratory feast. Typically one eats wat on Christmas — which is a spicy stew that contains meat and vegetables. It is served and eaten with injera, a spongy Ethiopian flatbread that is sometimes referred to as an edible spoon.
After the meal, it is typical to have a coffee ceremony where coffee is roasted and passed around to take in the smell.
On Ganna you will notice that most people are dressed in shamma or netela — or a white cotton robe with brightly coloured stripes at the end. Priests will wear red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas. In the afternoon, it is typical to attend church services.
Each person is given a candle (to represent the star of Bethlehem) and walks three times around the church in a solemn procession. Then each person stops to form an outer circle. In the center circle, the priest serves Holy Communion.
The celebration, which will last for 12 days, then begins. This is a time of games, festivities, folk dancing and performances. Boys play a holiday game (called Ganna) that is comparable to hockey, with a curved stick and round wooden ball. This game represents the shepherds tending to their flocks and is a large part of the Christmas celebrations.
Ethiopian men play a sport called yeferas guks which involves horseback riding and shooting "spears" at each other.
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Though modern churches are still great to see, if you want to see the ancient churches you'll want to visit Lalibela in January. One of Ethiopia's holiest sites, it attracts vast gatherings of pilgrims at Christmas. And celebrations are focused on 11 rock hewn churches from the 13th century which were built under the rule of King Lalibela of the Zagwe Dynasty and now have World Heritage status.
The enormous crowds celebrate all night long with chanting, singing and prayers, and are an evocative sight.
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This three-day festival commemorates Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. It is one of the few occasions when the tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) is removed from church altars; it’s then swaddled in colourful cloth and paraded around at the head of a procession.
Timkat is a particularly spectacular occasion in Gondar, when Fasil’s Pool is filled with water and hundreds of eager participants leap in to re-enact the baptism. It is also a big event in Lalibela.
Timkat is known for its music, and many instruments are played during the celebration. The sistrum (made of tinkling metal disks) and the makamiya (a prayer stick used as percussion) can be heard throughout the procession.
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If you want to witness this Ethiopian Christmas tradition yourself, you have a lot of options in terms of where to stay.
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Ethiopian Christmas is one of many sites you can see on your dream trip to Africa. Find out about the best time to go and the best places to see and things to do in Ethiopia. For inspiration use the Ethiopia itineraries from The Rough Guide to Ethiopia and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there. And don't forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
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