Ethiopian Christmas (Genna)

November 23, 2022

IT IS OFFICIAL, HAD BEEN FOR A WHILE NOW! Christmas /Genna/ is the It-holiday in the Ethiopian list of joyous holidays. Greens are up, Whites are out and red is going into your bowl that had been fasting for 43 days in the Tsome-nebiat.

Now the Ethiopian Christmas doesn’t mark New Year as it does all over the world and not necessarily new beginnings. Still, it is the most wonderful time of the year nonetheless, so sit tight. At the same time, we take you around for a tour from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa to the holy city of Lalibela.

When Does Ethiopian Christmas Celebrated?

Yes, the mystery! When the Christmas holidays mark the beginning of a year to the rest of the world, in Ethiopia, it falls in the final days of the fourth month, Tahesas 29th, which translates to January 7th of the Gregorian calendar.

This is because of the unique calendar in use by the Ethiopian church, which is not aligned with the Gregorian calendar. Just like our language, Amharic, the country has also got its own calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar. It is seven years and eight months behind the western calendar, but it is not as complicated as it sounds. The country has 13 months; the first 12 months each contain 30 days, and the 13th, which is the final month, has five or six days depending on whether it is a leap year or not. According to Ethiopia’s own calendar, Christmas is observed on January 7. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers January 7 as the day of Jesus’ birth; as a result, the day is devoted to commemorating it and includes significant religious activities and services in churches all over the nation.

How Does Ethiopia Christmas (Genna) Celebrate?

Christmas in Ethiopia is observed in a unique way from Christmas in the west. It is a solely religious celebration that has developed its own distinctive traditions over many years. While protestants and Catholics also observe the day in their own unique ways, the main ceremonial events of the holiday are centered around the local Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

The Ethiopian Christmas celebrations are more religious than traditional. Even though that entails no seclusion when it comes to the joyous festivities in the city, certain activities include holy churches and their processions. The most well-known Christmas celebrations take place in the historic city of Lalibela, though Christians in all of Ethiopia observe Genna. For the celebration, hundreds of priests and thousands of pilgrims, including the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, usually congregate.

Ethiopian Version of Christmas EVE

Unlike the rest of the world, in Ethiopia, even the preparation for the holiday is considered a holiday on its own. And on this day, all the new tourists will learn why Ethiopian holidays are what they are made out to be while repeat tourists relearn that fact all over again!

Ethiopian Orthodox Chruch Religious Ritual

Before the dawn breaks on to Christmas day, meaning on Eve’s day, people gather and head to the Ethiopian Orthodox church for religious processions mainly composed of gratitude and religious rituals. Which is to untie the fast they had been fasting for 18 hours, excluding the Gena some, which ranges to 43 days.

While in church, Tuwaf, a thin type of candle made of beeswax, will be lit up for religious purposes according to the set-out rules. The darkened lights will be lit up and painted gold, which is our version of “swim in Gold” Dubai.

Your eve doesn’t get finalized with church attendances, sure we have no tree-lighting ceremonies, snowball throwing, or even big bus tours, but your fun is guaranteed anyways!

Ethiopian Christmas Decorations

Let’s get started from the fun part of the chaos. Christmas decorations! For those who hadn’t already hung their trees, Eve is their last chance to do so, and even though it is not as common as it is to the western world, the city still finds its greens and glitters for this particular day.

Ethiopian christmas
A woman dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothes walks in front of a shop selling Christmas decorations at the market in Mekelle on January 4, 2020. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP) (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The preservative community who keep the tradition intact find their hand-made religious Christmas decoration set of cribs of the nativity scenes in Bethlehem. Decorations end with such glee and shine that even Times Square will need a clue or two from us!

Handmade scenes of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem
The Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem

Genna Outings in The City might be a tough one to break because who can choose between the traditional vibes of Totot and the contemporary trends that swarm Edna mall. And still, be able to call that decision-wise!

Ethioipian Christmas Decoration at Habesha traditional restaurant
Decoration at Habesha traditional restaurant

But first things first, the Habeshan Christmas Exhibitions. From Meskel flower to millennium hall to Hayat regency all different in their class, products, and crowd. You will have your shopping experience and fill of mini-concerts for days worth of time before Christmas braces itself upon you!

You will even have a chance to crouch on Santa’s laps and tell him your wishes, just kidding. There are no Santas involved in the Ethiopian Christmas, it is all the better with YE GENA ABAT (Ethiopian Version of Santa close ), and we adore them because they don’t ask if you have been naughty or not!

Ye Gena Abat by Firew Biruk

Next up is a festive dine-around! Because what is an Ethiopian holiday without everyone sporting one huge belly like a fashion accessory. This one will be an even tougher pick because the cuisine option is too vast that it deserves its chronicle. From the traditional and historical Doro wot to the luxury-ridden turkey, hotels serve in the city’s heart.

Doro wot, the Ethiopian national dish

While we fill our stomachs, go shopping, and have the time of our life, we can’t forget the jolly playlist of the Ethiopian Christmas. Starting with oldies but goldies going on to recent mixes of holiday vibe tunes!

Christmas Day

Finally, after all the festive chaos is done on eve’s day, everyone settles into their homes with their families. You get stirred out of sleep by the intoxicating waft of “Ketema” filling your nostrils and the baa of the sheep that is soon bound to be in your bowls within hours. And like every other true Ethiopian, you will climb off the bed and head out to join the delight of the holidays, feeling great despite how late you got in last night.

The whites that we took out will be worn. The Netela draped over our shoulders, mimicking the brightest of feelings inside.

Ethiopian traditional Cloth (Habesha kemis)

Eventually, we will circle the Mesob and get our first bite of dairy in over a month, and no one gets up till we are stuffed and yet again sporting a belly compensating for all 43 days in one go.

What do you eat, you say? It is good old Turkey, tender chicken meat to be exact, but a lot spicier and a lot less groomed up no matter how long it took and how laborious the process was.

After everyone gets shitfaced with the spicy and dies for Doro wot, it is time for the presents to get given out. And when we say presents we don’t mean formally decorated, placed under the tree, your wish come proper kind of presents. We mean the originally from Ethiopia gesture.

We mean that thing we do with buying a 15 birr mobile card and purchasing a package just so you could text everyone you know and love, including your annoying as hell boss, a quote from the bible you will mention a biblical saying to express yourself a little better and a little more sophisticated because it is in our blood to be just that, or at least pretend to be!

After that is done, we lay back on our couches decorated with the embroideries our moms made while talking about our non-existent love life or overthought plans, whichever ones suit you, to be honest! Then we open our TVs who sport the same belly that we do and watch holiday shows, mainly composed of actors making a fool out of themselves but a festive kind of fun nonetheless.

We will bet which actor was bound to shuffle his body on to the following spring or which artist will make it through with the heaviest load past. If you lose, you will pay your parents the money you owe them. If you win, you will be lectured or bullied, whichever way you see it, into believing that money is the root of all evil and you should never covet it in such derogatory forms. Then your dad or the older one of your family will start preaching the right way of Christmas betting. And we will all round up one topic on every Christmas we have ever lived to witness, YE GENA CHEWATA.

It is like those scenes in those family movies, the one you mimic along with your parents as they say it for the thousandth time over again, minus the eye roll, of course, because we are still Ethiopians despite the movie scenes we share with the western world.

Ye Genna Chewata

Christmas hockey, to be more precise. The neighborhood version of the bet we cooked up with our parents just a moment ago. A more professional and hopefully fair one because there are no parents involved holding higher moral standards over our heads and subtly bullying us into submission.

Back to our topic, ye Genna chewata. It is a traditional Ethiopian game typically played during Christmas. On Christmas Day, the youth participate enthusiastically in this traditional hockey-like game called “Ye Gena Chewata,” with the elders serving as referees. Back then, it was comparatively more common. The shepherds supposedly began playing the game with their sticks after learning about the birth of Christ because they were so happy and excited about it. In some regions of the country, this game is played with a round wooden ball and a curved stick, somewhat resembling hockey. It is similar to hockey as it uses leather puck and wooden clubs, all pro and profound. We even cross clubs in the middle of the field, indicating camaraderie, part of us being Ethiopian, upholding our tradition showing that although we are on opposing teams, there won’t be any hostility or bad blood among ourselves.

The only bad thing about this game is that it is not as popular as it should be or even used to be. Back in the reigns of Tewodros ll, Yohannes IV, Menelik ll, and Haile Sellasie, it was organized within the finest confinements and lavish ceremonies and rewards for the players.

Enthusiastic supporters from both sides jump up and down, trying to cheer the players as they slowly slide into the well-deserved mood for the game. After a laborious and fun game everyone disbands to their homes, the winner, of course, will take his prizes worth in sheep and goats and even though he is bound to share it with everyone on that field he will treat the animal in a coquetry way just so his opposing team gets mad at that than their loss against that team.

Yeferes Gugs

Another exciting sporting event that takes place during Genna is a horse race competition called “Yeferes Gugs,” in which riders throw lances at one another. Although it may sound like risky entertainment, the Oromia region especially enjoys playing this game very much.

Gift Exchange

In contrast to Christmas traditions and celebrations in the west, Ethiopia places more emphasis on ritual and ceremony than gift-exchanging. That does not mean that all families do not replicate the Western Christmas celebration, especially in large cities. Some people may exchange gifts of various kinds as a sign of their affection and friendship. Children in particular may always expect receiving gifts of new clothes and outfits for the holiday.

Celebrating Ethiopian Christmas Enjoying Some Alone Time

If you are indeed an introvert who would like to spend Christmas alone enjoying your own company watching others celebrate it, then we have got just the thing for you too! If you are broke, your choices are limited to going to church right after everyone leaves for their homes.

But if you do have money, then that is a lot of topics to be discussed sometime in the next century because your choices will only widen by that much.

From towering hotel rooms to spas that give out Christmas gifts of discounted services to have you feeling like the queen of England, only much younger, of course. You can order yourself a room service, post your “do not disturb” signage on your door, and enjoy your version of the merriest Christmas.

Celebrating Ethiopian Christmas Helping Others in Need

If you ask which Theresa, you are probably living under the rock. Hint, Biniyam Belete, tall, lean, brown-skinned, and a smile that would warm the coldest of hearts. Founder of the homes of so many older and disabled people. Yup him! Since we are already playing the game of matching the face with the character, here is a picture of him too!

Biniyam Belete

Here smiles, the founder of Macedonia Humanitarian Association. A non-governmental organization in Addis Ababa with a moderately populous city population, no jokes!

If you are his type of person, the kind that would like to spend Christmas doing what actually should be done, helping the disabled and helpless, then this is the right fit for you!

You can take the portion of money you would have wasted away, had you been spending your day as explained above, and make the smiles of so many people who deserved it more than that snarky waitress you tipped 10 birr just for the sake of formality because yes! She was checking out your man and showing off her craft by carrying seven bottles on each hand!

Here, no one will judge you for nothing. You will share the bread just as much as you share the laughter, the most accurate form of Christmas and its meaning!

Written by Typical Ethiopian Team

Typical Ethiopian Team is a team of professional authors who regularly publish 12 - 30 blog posts every month. They are doing a really good job of creating unique and reliable content about Ethiopia. If you want to contribute, contact us at [email protected].

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