Third Sunday in Advent
Advent and Christmas Traditions from Ethiopia
by EC Religious Studies Teacher Aberra Tesfay
It is a great honor and pleasure for me to share Advent and Christmas traditions from Ethiopia, my country of origin. As we prepare for this joyful season, I pray that the true meaning of Christmas is realized in our lives and the world.
Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia start Advent on November 25 and adhere to a strict vegan diet (without meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) throughout the 43 days before Christmas. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7 following the ancient Julian Calendar, along with other Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia, Serbia and Eritrea. They fast until 3 p.m. each day for the purpose of cleansing the body and soul in preparation for Christ’s birth. In Ethiopia, Christmas is called “Lidet” (“birth”) or “Genna” (“imminent”) in Amharic, the national language, to express the coming of the Lord.
One of the unique traditions surrounding Advent and Christmas in Ethiopia involves playing a game called “Ye Genna Chewata,” which resembles field hockey.
It is an ancient game that goes back to the time of Christ’s birth. According to one legend, when local Ethiopian shepherds heard the news of the birth of Jesus, they began hitting a ball around with their crooks in a spirit of happiness, inventing the game on the spot. The sport might have also existed in other ancient cultures, such as the Mesoamerican Pelota purépecha and ancestral Gaelic games.
On Christmas Day, most people wear a traditional garment called netella, thin white cotton with bright stripes at the end of the fabric, which is draped across the body like a shawl or toga. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas by getting together with their families, friends and neighbors, and many attend churches for Mass. Church ceremonies start around 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and last until 3 a.m. on Christmas Day. During the morning service, everyone in the congregation is given a candle to walk around the church three times in a somber procession of the Tabot (a wooden tablet that symbolizes the Arc of the Covenant) and accompanied by the sound of church bells and women’s ululations. The rite culminates with priests serving the Holy Communion from the center circle, considered the holiest place in the church.
The best place to experience Christmas ceremonies in Ethiopia is in the holy city of Lalibela, a town 200 miles north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Thousands of people from across the country and foreign tourists flock to Lalibela to participate in the Christmas celebration. The celebration involves, among many things, a colorfully dressed clergy leading the people in liturgical singing, clapping, dancing to the tunes of drums and metallic sistrums around the edges of the magnificent Rock-Hewn Churches carved over 800 years ago.
Follow this link to watch a short video of Christmas at Lalibela, Ethiopia.
Teach yourself to say “Merry Christmas” in five languages and appreciate the beauty and diversity of God’s people everywhere.