While the rest of the world celebrates Christmas on December 25th, Ethiopians, alongside Russian, Greek, Eritrean, and Serbian Orthodox churches, celebrate Christmas Day which is called “Genna” on January 7th. Santa Claus isn’t a big part of Ethiopian Christmas. Instead, in the rural parts of Ethiopia, elders would wear a unique black robe and give a slice of homemade bread (Defo Dabo) to kids. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas gatherings with their neighbors, friends, and families, and many of them attend church ceremonies.
Orthodox Ethiopian Christians “fast” for 40 days before Genna, eating a diet without meat, fish, milk, and dairy products. On the day of Genna, they’ll break their fast with a feast that includes dishes containing chicken, beef, and lamb. In the days before Genna, you’ll see people carrying live chickens on the streets and minibusses, and sheep are everywhere to be seen. People are pushing, pulling, dragging, carrying sheep on their shoulders, and maneuvering them into car trunks and taxis.
One of the Ethiopian Christmas traditions involves people playing a game called “Ye Ganna Chewata” or Genna games (nevertheless, it’s unlikely to see this tradition in urban areas) which has some resemblance to hockey. This game goes back to ancient times: it is said that shepherds in the era of Christ’s birth played a similar game with their crooks. Its connection with Christmas is presumably that around the time of Christ’s birth, the shepherds who watched their flocks by night, and to whom the Angel of the Lord appeared, may well have been playing a game similar to Genna with their crooks during the time that heavenly event took place.
Ethiopians will celebrate Christmas by strewing grass decoratively across the floor of their houses, traditional Ethiopian food will be served that includes injera (a traditional Ethiopian round, spongy, a flatbread made with the grain, teff) with w’et, a stew that is often made with a popular red spice called berbere or saffron. The w’et can be made with lamb, beef, fish, goat, or chicken and contains peas or lentils and vegetables. “Doro w’et”, a stew made from chickens (Doro), containing whole hard-boiled eggs (without the shell), is a particularly popular and delicious dish that’s eaten at Genna. Meat from sheep can also be eaten as a stew (Ye’beg w’et) or separately.
Following this delicious meal, there will be a coffee (Buna) ceremony (after all, Ethiopia is the origin of coffee, and it wouldn’t feel holiday without it). In front of hosts and guests, the coffee beans will be roasted, and the pan will be passed around for everyone to savor the aroma, Hmmmmmmm… For a split of seconds, the astounding scent will take you to a place you never thought exists. Coffee will be served with popcorn and sipped in the midst of the magical aroma of burning incense. After the coffee ceremony, special homemade drinks will be served depending on the household. Tej (a popular Ethiopian wine made from fermented honey, without grapes), Tela (a type of home-made beer made from a shrub called “Gesho”), and a strong alcoholic drink called Araki, made from local plants and herbs. Araki has a strong punch to it, and somewhat tastes like gin.
Genna for Ethiopians is less about materialism and presents and more about its religious significance and about spending time with family and friends. Neighbors also come and go and there’s plenty of warmth, laughter, and conversation.
We wish you all a Happy Ethiopian Christmas: Melkam Genna!