For those who use the Gregorian calendar, they are nearly a week into the new year and Christmas was on December 25, 2020, but for Coptic Christians in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt who abide by the Julian calendar, they celebrated Christmas on Thursday, January 7, as observed by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ and since November 25 on the Gregorian Calendar, Coptic Christians including those in Ethiopia have been observing ‘The Holy Nativity Fast’ or ‘Fast of the Prophets’ (Tsome Nebiyat in Ethiopia) which ended on January 6 — Christmas Eve.
Every Coptic Christian in Ethiopia becomes vegan during a 43-day fast and they break the fast with a vegan meal thus avoiding dairy products including chicken, beef, milk, and eggs.
On Christmas Eve or Gahad, all the churches hold a special service at night which ends after midnight. This is immediately followed by the Christmas celebrations that begin with a feast and parties. The celebration is centered around mass or church service and less of exchanging gifts under a Christmas tree or Santa Clause for that matter.
In Ethiopia, the Coptic Christmas celebration is called Ganna or Genna and every one holds a candle in church. Men and boys are separated from women and girls and the center circle is where the priest serves the Holy Communion or Mass. The people walk around the church three times holding the candles.
Ethiopian Christmas events are similar in neighboring Eritrea which also has a large Coptic Christian population.
Most people in Ethiopia troupe to the holy city of Lalibela in the northern part of the country for the celebrations. The churches there are mostly carved into the rock and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is also believed that one of the Three Wise Men who followed the star to visit baby Jesus was an Ethiopian. Ethiopians wear white for the festivities and some prefer to wear their traditional attire, Netela, which a white cotton cloth embellished with brightly colored strips at the ends worn like a shawl. Lately, millennials prefer to wear modern clothes for the Christmas festivities.
After the church service, men and boys usually play a game also called ganna. It’s played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball like hockey. They mainly eat a thick spicy stew called “wat” with a flatbread which is used to scoop the stew.
On January 19, which is 12 days after Christmas, Coptic Christians will celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ in a three-day celebration which is called Timkat.
Children will walk to church service on the day in a procession clad in the crown and robes of their various youth groups. The adults stick to Netela and the priests wear red and white robes propped with fringe embroidered umbrellas.
The Timkat is more of a time to indulge in church activities with lots of feasting and playing games. The men play a sport called yefaras guks. This is played on horseback with men throwing ceremonial lances at each other.
This year, there was little feasting for the many Ethiopians who have fled fighting in the Tigray region to Sudan. Many couldn’t afford basic goods being sold in the marketplace near the Umm Raquuba refugee camp in Sudan to celebrate.