Christmas in Ethiopia
In spite of Ethiopia’s ancient Christian heritage, Christmas, or Leddat, is not a very important holiday there. In fact, most people call the holiday Ganna or Genna after a ball game by the same name which by custom is played only once a year, on Christmas afternoon. About forty percent of Ethiopians are Christians, forty-five percent are Muslim, and the remaining fifteen percent are split among several different religions. Most Ethiopian Christians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which adheres to a different church calendar than that commonly found in the West (see also Old Christmas Day). Therefore, Ethiopians celebrate Genna Day on January 7. More elaborate celebrations take place twelve days later, on Timkat, or Epiphany.
Ethiopia embraced Christianity in the early fourth century, long before Christianity had taken root throughout Europe. During the thirteenth century King Lalibela ordered the construction of magnificent churches carved out of solid rock in a town that now bears his name. Contemporary Ethiopian Christmas observances include pilgrimages to these churches. Thousands make the journey to Lalibela each year, though it may mean walking for days, weeks, or even months. Those gathered there on Christmas morning share a meal. Then, church services are held at Beta Mariam, one of the underground churches, whose name means "House of Mary” (see also Mary). During the lengthy service a cross is passed through the crowd for worshipers to kiss.
Ethiopian Christmas celebrations also include processions in which revered icons (religious images used in prayer and worship) are removed from churches and carried through the streets. In addition, many participate in an all-night vigil on Christmas Eve. A meal of beans and bread sustains worshipers through a night of singing, dancing, and praying. Christmas Day services include religious dances. Percussionists playing drums, prayer sticks, and an instru-ment known as the tsenatsel, or sistrum, create a rhythm for the dancers.
As a rule, Ethiopians do not exchange gifts at Christmas. Young children may receive simple presents from their parents, however. Boys and young men look forward to Christmas because of the opportunity to participate in the yearly genna match. These popular events crown many peoples’ Christmas celebrations. Genna, played with bent wooden bats and wooden or leather balls, resembles hockey. The opposing teams compete fiercely, and serious injuries sometimes result. In spite of the verbal and physical aggression that takes place, the players enjoy the game enough to continue playing until dusk.