Christmas in Ethiopia:
Symbolism Amid Food, Fun and Games

Ethiopian wrestlers
Ethiopian wrestlers compete as part of the Ganna, celebrated on the Epiphany.

King Balthazar is not entirely credited with why Christians celebrate the Epiphany, but for the people of Ethiopia, the fact that he was one of the three magi has elevated him to a king of people’s hearts in the eastern African country.

Although his neighbors apparently didn’t know it at the time, Balthazar left his native Ethiopia to join kings Melchoir and Caspar, of Arabia and Tarsus, respectively, to present the baby Jesus with gifts befitting his status as savior. Balthazar brought frankincense, symbolizing Jesus as a high priest. Melchoir and Caspar brought gold and myrrh, which was used to make medicines and symbolized Jesus as a healer.

Their arrival in Bethlehem on January 6 became known as the Epiphany. Derived from the Greek term epiphaneia, Epiphany means “manifestation” or “to appear.” Christians who celebrate the Epiphany value it as one of their three most meaningful celebrations, after Easter and Christmas. Roman Catholics celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday between January 2 and January 8. So does the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, to which about half of Ethiopia’s 85 million people belong.

Christmas in Ethiopia is known as Ganna, and Ethiopians mark it by participating in games and enjoying their native food, especially the ubiquitous injera. By far the most popular game is Ganna Chewata, which is played with a curved stick. Similar to hockey, players try to knock a rur, or wooden ball, into a small hole in the ground.

Children enjoy playing Leddat, a form of field hockey in which sticks with hooks on one end are used. The game is played by two opposing teams and the stick and ball are made from locally grown trees. The teams often represent distinct regions of Ethiopia, and the rivalry can be intense. Lest people decry a lack of symmetry between the Epiphany and Jesus’ birth, legend holds that shepherds celebrated when they heard of Jesus' birth by playing Leddat.

More aggressive Ethiopian men engage in a mock battle called Yeferas Guks. Played on horseback, the men shoot ceremonial lances at each other and impress spectators with their charges, evasions and defensive maneuvers.

After this burst of activity, things calm down considerably during Christmas in Ethiopia. At dawn on the morning of Ganna, people dress in white, and many wear a traditional garment called a shamma. Draped over the shoulders like a toga, it is a white, cotton piece of cloth with brightly colored stripes across the ends. Priests wear turbans and red and white robes and carry colorful, fringed umbrellas to block the sun.

Everyone who goes to church on Ganna is given a candle and pays homage to the Holy Trinity – the divinity of three. People walk around their church three times in a solemn procession, holding a lit candle. The perimeter represents the first circle. Then worshippers go to the second circle to stand during the service, with the men and boys separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the most important and holy place in the church, for it is where the priest serves Holy Communion.

Christmas in Ethiopia: Food, Dance and a Symbolic Baptism

Following the service, the feast is on, especially if people have chosen to fast before the Epiphany. In the most traditional of homes, family members and guests gather around a low table that resembles a woven basket. The host, with a clay water jug in hand, pours water over each person’s hands. This gesture is more than a measure of hospitality; it is also good hygiene because Ethiopians often dispense with utensils. And with injera on the Ganna menu, they don’t really need them.

A variety of Ethiopian food is served on top of injera, a type of flat bread (though to Americans, it may bear a closer resemblance to a tortilla). Guests tear off a piece of injera and use it as a scoop to eat another Ethiopian favorite: wot, a thick and spicy stew that contains lamb, beef, vegetables or beans. Potatoes, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, peas, beans, onions and hot peppers may round out the meal.

During Christmas in Ethiopia, it is common for people to scoop up food from this buffet and feed their loved ones. This Ethiopian tradition, called gursha, represents an act of respect and kindness and is often continued right through dessert, which is likely to feature freshly picked ripe fruits, such as pineapples, papayas, mangoes, bananas and oranges.

Coffee is a favorite drink in Ethiopia, and not just during Ganna. Coffee beans grow abundantly in Ethiopia, thanks to the intense heat in the country, which is near Somalia, Kenya and Sudan. Ancient Ethiopians exported coffee to nearby Yemen, where coffee bushes flourished. By the 13th century, coffee beans were being roasted and brewed in Ethiopia. Today, coffee is the country’s single largest export, constituting about 60 percent of its total exports.

Its beginnings were rather practical in purpose: Ethiopian monks from more than 1,000 years ago claim that they began chewing on raw coffee beans to stay alert during long prayer services, and not just during Christmas in Ethiopia.

They probably wouldn’t need this diversion during Timkat. The three-day celebration starts on January 19 and continues the spirit of Ganna while allowing the faithful to engage in a symbolic baptism.

Though meaningful, the celebration is also very festive: families walk to a stream or sunken pool in a lively procession that includes chanting, dancing and singing. Ethiopian music is rousing, rhythmic and distinguished by several instruments: the krar, a five- or six-string lyre that is strummed or plucked; the massinko, a one-string violin with a square sound box; the washint, a reed flute; the negarit, a huge drum beaten with sticks; the smaller atamo, which is played with the hands; and the sistrum, which resembles a vertical tambourine.

Adults don shammas and follow priests to the water, where they bless it and splash it onto people to cleanse them of sin. In doing so, the priests demonstrate that they have come a long way since the ancient Ethiopians: instead of chewing on coffee beans to stay awake, they may lean on a makamiya, a long, T-shaped prayer stick that is used to keep the musical rhythm and is also used to prop up the priests during the long ceremony.

At the water’s edge, there is often the omnipotent presence of another well-known man, usually represented in the form of a wooden carving: Balthazar, the king who gave his people Christmas in Ethiopia.

Written by Dianne Weller

Works Cited
Christmas Celebrations in Ethiopia. <>
Christmas in Ethiopia. <>
Christmas in Ethiopia. <>
Concerning the Magi and their Names. <>
Corrigan, Jim. Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2005.
Gillespie, Carol Ann. Ethiopia. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003.
Heinrichs, Ann. Ethiopia: Enchantment of the World. New York: Children’s Press, 2005.
Paul, Tessa (ed.) Ethiopia: A Portrait of the Country Through its Festivals and Traditions. Danbury: Grolier, 1999.

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