On September 12, Ethiopians celebrate the dawn of a new year. For the initiated this may sound anomalous but Ethiopia, a country of more than 80 million people, is behind time… literally.
The Horn of Africa country uses its own calendar with a 276 year difference between the Ethiopic and Coptic calendars.
In spite of this, the Ethiopic calendar is closely associated with the rules and the different calculations influenced by the Coptic church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido church.
Based on the ancient Coptic calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar is seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar, owing to alternate calculations in determining the date of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Enkutatash is the name for the Ethiopian New Year, and means “gift of jewels” in the Amharic language. The story goes back almost 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba of ancient Ethiopia and Yemen who was returning from a trip to visit King Solomon of Israel in Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Bible in I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9. She had gifted Solomon with 120 talents of gold (4.5 tons) as well as a large amount of unique spices and jewels. When the Queen returned to Ethiopia her chiefs welcomed her with enku or jewels to replenish her treasury.
The celebration is both religious and secular. Typically this is the end of the long rainy season and the countryside is covered with yellow daisies. The day begins with church services followed by the family meal. Young children will receive small gifts of money or bread after the girls gather flowers and sing and boys paint pictures of saints. Families visit friends and adults drink Ethiopian beer.
The Ethiopian calendar is a unique form of the Coptic or Alexandrian calendar, derived from the earlier Egyptian calendar which influenced the Julian calendar. On September 12, 2007, Ethiopia celebrated its bi-millennial or 2,000 years from the Annunciation of Christ. Why is their calendar 7-8 years different from the West’s Gregorian calendar? In the West, the calendar was calculated around A.D. 525 by Dionysius Exiguus a Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer who based his calculations for the birth of Christ on an erroneous date for the death of Herod the Great. In the East, an Alexandrian monk named Panodorus (or Annias) did his calculations differently back around A.D. 400 for the Egyptian calendar.
Ethiopia’s use of a different calendar has always confused foreigners visiting the country.
Keeping appointments with locals is more often than not a nightmare for foreign visitors, who are always encouraged to make it clear when they are making appointments with locals on whether they are referring to local or European time.
For example, Europeans who unknowingly fix appointments for 9 am are surprised when their Ethiopian counterparts turn up at 9 pm.
Ethiopians who usually don’t use the ante meridian (am) and post meridian (pm) timing begin their day at 01 am and end at 12 pm, which is sunset local time.
The celebration of the New Year
As a harbinger of the New Year, a song called ‘Abebayehosh’ is performed by groups of Ethiopian girls. You could be at home in your PJs, sipping on some coffee, or maybe taking a stroll, as a group of girls approach you beating their drums, clapping and singing the traditional song. One of the girls leads the song and the rest respond to the lyric, chanting “lemlem”. They carry bright-yellow flowers called adey abeba, which grow in Ethiopia only from September to November. As a token of appreciation, people respond to the girls’ pleasant songs with a piece of bread prepared for the holidays, or with money – the latter taking precedence these days. Then come the heartwarming praises from the girls, wishing the gift giver more riches, more children for the coming year and even 30 calves.
The whole family comes together to light a bonfire in their backyard and dance around it in circles on the eve of the New Year. For the New Year celebration, young boys have a different role. Weaving their creativity into beautiful paintings that herald the coming of a bright new day, the boys go from one house to another handing out their works of art on the morning of the holiday to family members, neighbours and friends.
Holidays in Ethiopia are bound to make most people feel a pinch in their pockets, because of the feast. Slaughtering animals is mostly done at people’s homes, and men usually assume the traditional role. The national dish doro wot (chicken stew), which takes at least half a day to prepare, is rarely missed from the holiday menu, and is served along with local alcoholic drinks such as tej (honey wine) and tela. The doro wot is served with injera (a flatbread) on a large platter; everyone can dine together, and it is common to see people feeding each other as a way of showing affection and love. When visiting families, neighbours and friends, savouring every holiday dish is the order of the day and may leave some people overwhelmed.
There’s no better time than the holidays for people who would like to relish Ethiopian coffee in all its glory. Complemented by popcorn and a pleasant frankincense aroma, coffee is served after the extensive holiday feast is over, and long, freshly cut green grass called ketema is spread on the floor.