In ETHIOPIA, Epiphany is a far more important holiday than Christmas. Whereas Western Christians commemorate the journey of the MAGI in their Epiphany celebrations, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians honor the occasion of JESUS’baptism. Accordingly, they call the festival Timkat (sometimes also spelled “Timqat” or “Timket”), which means “baptism.” Since the Ethiopian Orthodox Church follows a different calendar than that commonly adhered to in the West, Ethiopians celebrate Timkat on January 19 (see also OLD CHRISTMAS DAY). The festivities spill over to the following day, when Ethiopians observe the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel.
Adults prepare for Timkat by washing their cotton robes, called sham-ma, and restoring them to a brilliant whiteness. In addition, they brew special beers, bake bread, and slaughter a sheep in preparation for the Timkat feast. Children receive new clothes from their parents for this special occasion.
Religious observances begin around sunset on Timkat Eve. Garbed all in white, parishioners wait outside their local church for the priests to emerge with the tabot, or holy ark. The ark contains the Tablets of the Law, which Jews call the Torah and Christians know as the first five books of the Old Testament. Ethiopians do not believe that the original Ark of the Covenant was lost. Instead they claim that the Cathedral of Axum in Ethiopia now guards this precious relic. Each Ethiopian Orthodox church has a blessed replica of that original. On Timkat Eve the priests and parishioners of each church form a procession bearing the tabot to a nearby body of water where an all-night celebration will take place. Processional crosses, incense censers, drums, trumpets, and BELLS set the mood as the congregation wends its ways towards the water. Priests in their bejewelled ceremonial robes and sequined velvet umbrellas show up as splashes of color amidst the sea of worshipers in white. In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, many congregations meet at Jan Meda, the old horse-racing arena.
Hours of drumming, dancing, eating and drinking precede the religious service, which begins at two in the morning. Around dawn the priests bless the stream or lake by submerging a gold cross and a consecrated candle in it. The priests scatter drops of water on those who want to rededicate themselves to their Christian faith. Some enthusiastic worshipers, not content with this mild gesture, immerse themselves completely in the water. Afterwards the crowd resumes the feasting, singing, and dancing. Later, jubilant processions, led by dancing and singing priests, escort the tabots back to their shrines.
Many enjoy the afternoon by watching feres gugs. This event, held on many feast days, resembles medieval European jousting. Participants wear capes made out of lions’ manes and headdresses made from baboon hair. Colorful brocades, velvets, and tassels adorn their horses. The game itself may have developed out of the military maneuvers practiced by the mounted warriors of past eras. One band of horsemen armed with bamboo lances tries to knock the members of the other band off their horses. The defenders must escape these blows by clever horsemanship or deflect them with shields made of rhinoceros or hippopotamus hides.
Well-attended public events such as these provide an opportunity to engage in another kind of sport, that is, the search for a mate. Many young men wander through the crowds hoping to spot an attractive, eligible young woman. The more bold among them may then approach the girl’s father with inquiries.