By Sophia Kassa, Programs Specialist for Addis Jemari
Guest blogger for Addis Jemari, Sophia comes to us from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and now lives in Raleigh, NC
Christmas in Ethiopia is celebrated on January 7, not on December 25, because Ethiopians use the Julian calendar. In the Amharic language, Christmas celebration is called Gena. Before Gena, people from the Orthodox Church take part in 40 days fasting which is called the ‘fast of the prophets’ (Tsome Nebiyat). On Gena, most people go to church before the family gathering party at home starts. The church mass starts on Christmas Eve at 6:00 p.m. and the service finishes about 3:00 a.m. on Christmas Day. The design of the Ethiopian Church is similar to the houses (grass roof huts) in the country side. In cities, modern churches are built in three circles, each within the other. Everyone who goes to church for Gena celebration is given a wax candle and walks around the church three times in a solemn procession. The choir sings from the outer circle. The mass then goes to the second circle to stand during the service and in this circle; the men and boys stand separated from the women and girls. The most important and holy place in the church is the center circle and it is where the priest serves the Holy Communion or Mass.
Wearing the white traditional cloth on Gena is common and the feast usually starts with slaughtering a sheep. People who have been fasting before Gena will break their fasting by eating the first dish called ‘dulet’ prepared from the soft organs of the sheep. Those who prepare ‘doro wat’ (chicken stew) will also eat that. The rest of the cooking includes ‘wat’, which is a thick and spicy stew, and preparing it usually takes hours. It is served with ‘enjera’, the flat bread with many eyes. Fingers are used to scoop up the stew with a piece of ‘enjera’, making it thoroughly go into the eyes. Each scoop is called ‘gursha’. On holidays and special occasions, people give each other ‘gursha’ to show love to each other. The bigger the size of the ‘gursha’, the more it shows one’s love to the person taking the ‘gursha’.
Ahead of Gena, it is so common for women to prepare the two famous homemade drinks called ‘tela’ and ‘teje’ for celebration. Of course, the three-round coffee ceremony also takes the center of the celebration, gathering family and neighbors around to chat and laugh together.
Ethiopian Christmas in USA
Ethiopians continue the traditions of Gena wherever they live abroad, including the United States. Like other religious holidays, Gena is an important holiday to celebrate with family members and friends. Given the fact that many Ethiopians get the most important ingredients to prepare traditional foods from Ethiopia, the preparation for the holiday is almost similar to the one back home. The exception that Ethiopians cannot do in the U.S. is slaughter a sheep at home and this means, the ‘dulet’ dish will not be on the table. This part of the celebration is therefore very much missed by all Ethiopians living abroad.
Ethiopians do not give gifts like Americans, but celebrate the holiday with their loved ones. Doro wat, a dish that takes five to six hours to prepare is usually prepared one day before the holiday. It is a stew made with chicken and hard-boiled eggs in it. A lot of red onion is added to it and it is hot and spicy. Although doro wat can be made at any time, it is one dish many Ethiopians eat on Christmas or on other holidays. It is also a dish prepared when respected guests are invited at home. In addition, dishes like ‘kitfo’ (ground beef spiced with hot pepper), ‘alicha’ (beef stew with turmeric), ‘gomen be sega’ (green cabage with bones), ‘ayeb’ (homemade cheese) and the likes are also prepared for the holiday. All these foods go with ‘enjera’ and therefore the baking of ‘enjera’ is also part of the preparation. The other most important thing to make on Gena is the big ‘Gena bread’.
Ethiopians living in the U.S. celebrate the Gregorian Christmas on the 25th of December in the custom of the country and on January 7, they celebrate Gena, according to the Ethiopian Tradition. Those who are strong in their religion go to the church on the eve of Gena and celebrate with the mass by lighting candles and singing Christmas songs. All these, however, depend on whether there is an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the city one lives in. If there is no church to go to, people will pray and listen to religious songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at home. Holidays are, in general, ways for Ethiopians to gather and celebrate an important day within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and maintain connections to their heritage. Holidays and foods are very much associated with one another, and like in Ethiopia, the preparation rests on the shoulder of women, but some men also help.