Ethiopian Christmas January 7th
Celebrating Ethiopian Christmas - on January 7th?
In Ethiopia, the Othodox Christian habesha follow the Julien calendar and celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7th instead of December 25th. The holiday is a large community religious affair with very little of the commercial trappings seen in the west.
As an Ethiopian-American adoptive family, we've tried to incorporate some of these traditions into our own Christmas celebration and also again on the 7th as a special celebration of our ties to Ethiopia. What's a little difference in lunar accounting - and who are we to argue with celebrating twice? Melkam Genna!
The Ethiopian Calendar is a little different than ours
Why is Christmas on January 7th?
The ancient culture in Ethiopia has a unique "Ge-ez" calendar based off the Egyptian or Coptic calendar, the Alexandrian calendar then with the addition of leap years also borrows a bit from the Julian calendar. Like the Coptic calendar, there are 13 months, 12 with 30 days, then the thirteenth month has 5 days (except on leap years every 4 years when it has 5 days).
The Ethiopian new year "Enkutatash" also has a different date beginning on September 11th every year except leap year on which it begins September 12th. The Ge'ez calendar is also 7 and a half years behind the western calendar due to a difference in determining the year of the Annunciation (and the mid-year new year!). This explains our confusion while visiting in 2008 about why there were "Year 2000" decorations in the main square.
Ethiopian Christmas Day Traditions
Unlike our western habit of unabashed gluttony starting on Thanksgiving through New Years, Ethiopians lead up to Genna with a month of fasting. Obviously, this is not of the traditions followed by our multi-cultural family!
A full day fast occurs the day before Genna, then waking at dawn, they dress all in white, traditional shamma scarves wrapped around their shoulders or heads (for women) and they spend the morning in candlelit church services.
When the mass ends, the families gather and celebrate with a traditional meal of doro wat (spicy chicken stew), defo dabo (a holiday bread) and tela beer. If children receive any gifts it would be a new traditional outfit to wear to church.
Dress for Genna Success - Wear a Shamma scarf for your Ethiopian Genna Celebration
Shammas come in all colors, but for Genna and religious holidays, the color to choose is white.
Frankincense; the gift of the (Ethiopian) Magi
The scent of the holiday
It has long been rumored that one of the three Magi visiting the baby Jesus that night in Bethlehem was Ethiopian. King Balthazar's gift of Frankincense has long been valued in Ethiopian religious ceremonies and culture. For this reason, add some frankincense to your Ethiopian Christmas celebration and revel in a scent that says both Ethiopia and Christmas. I like to buy it from the Greek Orthodox priests at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross (click on the photo to visit their shop).
Ethiopian Frankincense - Give the Gift of the Magi
If you've been to Ethiopia you'll recognize the scent of Frankincense. In addition to being a gift of the Magi, it flavors important events throughout Ethiopian culture from church to coffee ceremonies to the home. The resin is the most authentic form to use as its the natural sap. Make sure to buy some charcoal for your burner while you're at it.
This probably won't go all that far in our house, but for those who want to give it a try this is a good sample size.
You'll need the charcoal to burn the incense resin.
An Ethiopian Nativity Set
Straight from the land of King Balthazar!
I found a beautiful clay nativity set when in Addis through the artisan shop sponsored by my daughter's orphanage. They had only one left and when I returned home, I gave it to my parents. Since then, I've been looking for another one. They're proving hard to find. Even friends who had visited after me were not able to find any in their travels. Since then, I've come across this website call World Nativities and they have a clay model and a one dimensional wood hanging model too. I've also heard that occasionally some do appear on Ebay.
Greet habesha (Ethiopians) on January 7th, with a warm "Melkam Genna!"
Hang some Habesha Holiday Greetings on your Tree
Make your own Ethiopian Ornament
Although having a Christmas tree is rare in Ethiopia, we like to add some Ethiopian elements to our tree. Here is an ornament I designed on zazzle based on the Church art from Debre Bihran Selassie church in Gondar Ethiopia. Check it out, change it and make it your own.
Find more Ethiopian Adoption Angel Ornaments on Zazzle
After a month long fast, Genna's morning church service is followed by a family feast of Doro Wat.
Below is my adaptation of a Doro wat recipe for the crock pot. Disclaimer; this has been neither tried nor approved by any Ethiopians who had a palate more advanced than baby formula! But we like it... get out your Berbere!
- juice of one lemon
- two teaspoons salt
- 2 - 3 pounds of chicken pieces and pierced to facilitate marinating
- two onions
- Chick peas if desired (my addition)
- four tablespoons niter kebbeh (or butter)
- four cloves garlic
- 1 fresh ginger root; chopped (about a teaspoon)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek (see below for shopping advice)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon berberÃ©
- 4 tablespoons ketchup (my adaptation) - it flavors and helps thicken the sauce
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup dry red wine
- hard-boiled eggs (1 per person)
- pierced with a toothpick
The main spice that defines Ethiopian food.
- What you do:
- 1) Marinate the chicken in the lemon or lime juice and half the salt for 30-60 minutes.
- 2) In a fry pan, dry cook (no oil) the onions over medium heat for a few minutes. Stir constantly to prevent them from browning or burning. Some cooks add the niter kebbeh at the start, but dry-cooking the onions for a few minutes gives the dish a distinctive flavor.
- 3) Add the niter kebbeh or butter to the onions, along with the garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, nutmeg, remaining salt, berberÃ© (or cayenne pepper and paprika), and ketchup. Stir and simmer for a few minutes. The onions should be soft, tender, and translucent, but not browned.
- 4) Add the chicken stock, water, or dry red wine. Bring the mixture to a low boil while stirring gently. Cook for a few minutes, then reduce heat.
- 5) Place the marinated chicken pieces in the crock pot and pour the sauce and onions over it. Cover and heat it on low 6-8 hours or high 4 hours. Taste the stew and add mor berbere or ketchup as desired.
- 6) About 15 minutes before serving, gently add the hard-boiled eggs and ladle sauce over them.
- While it's not the way Ethiopians would serve it, doro wat is very good with Couscous, Rice, or Middle-Eastern or Indian style flat bread if you can't find injera.
Fenugreek is a part of Doro Wat; our favorite Ethiopian stew.
Defo Dabo Recipe - Ethiopian Holiday Bread
Baked in an enormous clay dish to share with large groups of visiting family and friends, this bread says holidays in Ethiopia. Unlike the pancake-like injera that you see more often in Ethiopian meals, this is a a more typical thick and heavy bread. The recipe below is for a smaller size to fit more typical baking ware.
As for the exotic spices; if you can't find bishops weed you could substitute caraway seeds. Black cumin is an ancient spice grown in Egypt and found in King Tut's tomb, they are also mentioned in the Bible. You can find them online. I'll add some links below.
- 28 oz wholemeal wheat flour
- a sachet of instant dry yeast
- 1 tbsp bishop's weed
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp black cumin (seeds)
- 6 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- 3/4 pounds banana leaves
- - Combine yeast, sugar and salt in a bowl.
- - Add about 16oz of water. Stir to dissolve sugar, salt and yeast.
- - Let it stand for 10 minutes or until bubbles appear on surface.
- - Add oil, bishop's weed and coriander.
- - Combine flour with the yeast mixture by hand to form soft dough.
- - Knead until dough is smooth adding oil oil and then water when needed.
- - The mixture is not too firm or too runny.
- - Add black cumin seeds and knead to distribute seeds evenly.
- - Cover and stand in a warm place for about 1 hour to rise. Dough should double in size.
- - Preheat oven to medium temperature.
- - Place half of the banana leaf into a 30cm deep baking pan ensuring that entire surface is covered.
- - Pour mixture into the pan and wrap it with the banana leaves.
- - Cover top of mixture with the remaining leaf.
- - Give it a few more minutes to rise further and bake for 55 - 60 minutes.
- - Remove from pan and peel the banana leaf off.
Ethiopian Christmas Eve Service at Lalibela
This video lets you hear the musical chanting called melekets of the ceremony. You can also see the the sistrum which is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks. The beats are kept with the long, T-shaped prayer sticks called a makamiya.
The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity - by Elizabeth Laird
The nativity story told through an Ethiopian lens.
This book combines original ancient Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts of the nativity story with folk and canonical versions of the tale for a unique and stunning cultural insight and story. The manuscripts with their uniquely Ethiopian depictions are a visual feast in themselves.
Timkat - The Celebration continues January 19th
Twelve days after Genna, the Ethiopians celebrate again. This time with a three day event of colorful processions to church to mark Jesus' baptism. The colorful embroidered umbrellas and the chanting music really are stunning.