Ethiopian Religious Holidays

Ethiopian Religious Holidays

Vast Ethiopia Tours believes that the best way to really be part of Ethiopian culture is through its many festivals and religious ceremonies. These events can be visited in conjunction with other sites around the country. To this end, we have provided major holidays below that may be integrated into any one of our package tours.

The major religious events in Ethiopia are mostly linked to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose history goes back to the 3rd Century. Due to a strong faith, celebrations and festivals play an important part in daily life. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church ceremonies are unique and impressive, especially Timket, Genna and Meskel. During these festivals, which are celebrated across the country, religious followers and priests dress in traditional garb, and large amounts of food and drink are almost always consumed.

Other holidays include Enkutatash (New Year) and Fasika (Easter). The Islamic Islamic tradition also celebrates religious festivals in the Ethiopian calendar, notably, Muharram, Milad-an-Nabi and Eid-ul-Fitr.

We have divided the fixed holidays into four quarters of the year:

January to March
Lidet or Genna (Ethiopian Christmas)
January 7th
Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated following a 43-day fast known as Tsome Gahad (the advent), with a spectacular procession, which begins at 6 AM and lasts until 9 AM. The holiday is bombastically celebrated in Lalibela, a holy city for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and many people from all over the country make a pilgrimage, sometimes on foot to share the blessing. For several days leading up to Christmas, priests and revellers chant and pray around the rock-hewn churches, often throughout the night. After Christmas mass, people break the fast with meat of chicken or lamb or beef accompanied with injera and alcoholic drinks like tela and tej.

Timket (Epiphany)
January 19th
Timket is one of the most important festivals in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It commemorates Christ’s baptism by St. John in the Jordan River. Timket is celebrated two weeks after Lidet (Ethiopian Christmas) and begins on the eve of the holiday with massive processions through the streets. The holy Tabot, the replica of the Ark of the Covenant, is removed from every church in the country the day before the celebration and taken to a central area where the ceremony takes place. The following morning, the church officials, resplendent in their gorgeous regalia, assemble around the Tabot and sprinkle holy water on the Christians. Timket is an especially beautiful celebration in the cities of Gonder, Axum and Lalibela, however the day is revered anywhere there is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

April to June
Fasika (Ethiopian Easter)
55 days after Lent (mid-April)
Fasika is celebrated after 55 days of fasting during which Orthodox Christians refrain from meat and dairy products. Vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, fruit and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by injera and/or bread are common, especially in the main cities. During the fast, the first meal of the day is taken after 3pm except Saturdays and Sundays, when a meal is allowed after the morning service. On the eve of Easter, Christians go to church and light candles during Easter mass, which begins at 6pm and ends at 8pm. Like the other Christian festivals, Easter is especially colorful in the holy cities of Axum and Lalibela. After mass, everyone goes home to break the fast with the meat of chicken or lamb, slaughtered the previous night, accompanied with injera and traditional alcoholic drinks. Like Christmas, Easter is a day of family, and gifts are common.

July to September
Ethiopian New Years Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year)
September 11th
New Year not only marks the end of the calendar but the end of the rainy season. Enkutatash is also considered a religious holiday that commemorates John the Baptist. Enkutatash is a day for young boys and girls to sing and dance and exchange New Year greetings.

Meskel (Finding of the True Cross)
September 27th
Meskel is celebrated with a community-wide mass followed by the lighting a massive bonfire known in Ethiopian tradition as the damera. Meskel commemorates the finding of the True Cross in the fourth century when Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. According to tradition, Empress Helena lit incense and prayed for assistance to guide her. The smoke drifted towards the direction of the buried cross. She dug and found three crosses; one of them was the True Cross used to crucify Jesus Christ. Empress Helena then gave a piece of the True Cross to churches all over the world, including the Ethiopian Church. When this piece was then brought to Ethiopia the legend says those who laid eyes upon it were immediately stripped of their clothing. Due to this, the church clergy buried it at a monastery on the mountain of Gishen Mariam in the northern highlands.

Addis Ababa is the site of the largest Meskel celebration in the country and takes place on Meskel Square, the city’s traditional center. Visitors arrive around 3-4 PM to watch mass. At dusk, thousands of candles are lit as church leaders light the enormous demera. For hours, thousands of believers gather around the bonfire to romp around the flames, sometimes very dangerously, and bless their loved ones with the ashes. Other Meskel celebrations arouind the country may take place a few days before or after the Addis Ababa celebration.

The Southern Christian peoples of the Gurage and Dorze regions are also well known for their passionate Meskel celebrations that involve the slaughter of thousands of cattle. For several days, they celebrate the holiday eating raw meat, drinking local alcohol, and dancing.

October to December
Kulubi (Feast of Saint Gabriel)
December 28th
The feast of Saint Gabriel the Archangel culminates in a pilgrimage to Kulubi, which lies 68 kilometers from the eastern city of Dire Dawa. Christians mark the celebration with colorful processions and ceremonies. Pilgrims walk up the hill to the church to fulfill their vows and give gifts to the church. Some pilgrims carry heavy rocks on their back up the hill to the church.


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