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The festivals of Ethiopia are colourful, joyous and traditional. The country has a long Christian history – dating back to 4AD – and most of the festivals revolve around the religion. There are numerous local rituals; however here we have included only the largest and most important.
If you would like to incorporate a festival into your visit, there are numerous opportunities to do so on both group and private tours. Please note that the dates are subject to change as the Ethiopian calendar has 13 months – contact an Africa tour consultant for more details.
The equivalent of Christmas, Gena is preceded by 43 days of fasting through Tsome Gahad (or Advent). The festival culminates in a church service, and a procession that continues throughout the night. All participants dress in white, and are led by priests to chant, sing and dance their way to various churches as the procession proceeds around the villages and towns.
Celebrated around the 18th of January, Timkat is the celebration of Epiphany (the baptism of Jesus) by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Pilgrims travel for days to the churches where the celebrations begin. Local priests begin with a long procession of the Tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant), which is draped in multi-coloured cloth and walked slowly around town. Church choirs (debteras) lead the procession, chanting and singing, accompanied by church drums (keberos). The Tabot is the placed in a white tent by the shores of Lake Tana, while priests and pilgrims stay up all night, praying and singing. In the morning, the water is blessed and worshippers enter the water to ritually re-enact the baptism of Jesus; a symbolic renewal of life. Afterwards, the Tabot is taken back to the church and pilgrims head off to enjoy feasts around the village.
The equivalent of Easter, Faskia is of special significance to worshippers. The culmination of fasting for 56 days of Lent (hudade), only vegetarian meals have been allowed to be consumed, with eating restricted to afternoon periods only. Easter Sunday is when the real celebrations begin, with church services starting at six in the evening and running until two am. Worshippers then return home and have a feast typically consisting of meat, injera (fermented bread) and tej (local honey beer). Traditionally, Easter is a time for family reunions, forgiveness and the sharing of gifts.
Meskel is the celebration of the finding of the true cross by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the 4th century. The festival centres on the legend that Queen Helena had a revelation in a dream. She was told to light a great bonfire and the smoke would reveal the resting place of the cross. Today the bonfire (demera) is erected in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa and is topped by daisies in the form of a cross. Priests and worshippers circle the bonfire singing before it is lit.
Saint Mary of Zion Church is the supposed resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. The service on the 30th November in the church is a colourful affair, with pilgrims travelling to the service from all over. Pilgrims, dressed with white shawls, arrive to make wishes and pray for help in various areas of their lives. Priests lead the service playing keberos (drums) while the female members of the congregation respond with a chorus of ululations.If you would like to visit during any of these festivals, please have a look at our tours to Ethiopia, or contact us.