Why do Ethiopians, Eritreans and others celebrate Christmas on January 7?
While the rest of the world celebrated Christmas on December 25, Ethiopians, Eritreans and other Coptic Christians are celebrating Christmas today, January 7, 2022, because they have a different calendar. The main Coptic Orthodox Churches in Africa are in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Egypt where they are marking the birth of Jesus Christ.
Christmas, which they call Ledet or Genna, comes from the word Genna, meaning “imminent”, indicating the coming of the Lord and the salvation of mankind.
While the Gregorian calendar celebrates Christmas on December 25, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and other Coptic Christians still retain the ancient Julian calendar in which Christmas falls on January 7 (of the Gregorian calendar.)
Since November 25 on the Gregorian Calendar, Coptic Christians have been observing ‘The Holy Nativity Fast’ or ‘Fast of the Prophets’ (Tsome Nebiyat in Ethiopia) which ended on January 6 — Christmas Eve. They only eat a vegan diet during that period and avoid eating foods containing chicken, beef, milk and eggs. The fast of Advent cleanses the body and soul in preparation for the day of the birth of Christ.
On Christmas Eve, churches hold a special service at night which ends after midnight. Immediately after, the Christmas celebrations begin with a feast and parties but not without people gathering in churches for mass at 6:00 am on Christmas Day.
Genna or Christmas in Ethiopia is observed by Christians across the country, but usually, the most important celebrations occur in the historic city of Lalibela known for its churches cut into the rock.
“There, crowds of up to 100,000 pilgrims flock to watch immaculately dressed Orthodox clergy perform the woreb lining the steep ledges surrounding the famous rock-hewn churches carved over 800 years ago. Accompanied by a slowly building tempo of traditional church drums, metallic sistrum and pilgrims’ clapping, they lead the crowd in an intensely moving musical performance about the birth of Jesus Christ,” The Ethiopian Herald writes.
There is also the procession of the Tabot; Christians follow the procession with lighted candles.
After church, people go back to their homes to feast. They mainly eat a thick spicy stew call “wat” with a flatbread which is used to scoop the stew. Tej (honey wine) may also be served.
Men and boys usually play a game also called Genna. It is played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball like hockey. Legend says that when shepherds heard of the birth of Christ, they rejoiced and started playing the game with their sticks. Other social activities include horse racing and folk music dancing. Gift giving is a minor part of Christmas festivities in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Christmas events are similar in neighboring Eritrea which also has a large Coptic Christian population. The main churches in Eritrea are the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Apart from Eritrean Christians also taking part in the special fast, they also go to a church service for Christmas.
In the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, church members dress in the traditional white outfits, with men often sitting on one side of the aisle and women on the other. The priest is usually in his gold robe and is seen with five helpers with white veils wrapped around their shoulders. The service consists of liturgy and listening to Bible verses in Geez — the traditional language used in the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
After church, everyone goes back home to feast. Injera — flatbread — is usually served. Although Christmas appears different for Coptic Christians, the focus is almost the same — to celebrate the birth of Christ who came to free people from sin.
On January 19, Coptic Christians will celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ which is called Timkat. Children will walk to church service on the day in a procession.