Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations on Earth. And it one of the most uniquely Christian on Earth as well. The Ethiopians celebrate an ancient form of Orthodox Christianity, which leads to some very interesting Christmas traditions.
First of all the Ethiopians call Christmas Ganna and they celebrate it on January 7, which in the rest of the Christian world is the Epiphany. This is because they base their celebration of Ganna on the ancient Coptic Calendar. Much about Ganna is rooted in the ancient. The ceremonies of the ancient Mass that occurs on Ganna morning is one example. All participants traditionally wear white, and the enter the church with unlit candles which they light once inside. Many of the churches were carved out of solid rock centuries ago. Newer churches are built with a design based on three concentric circles. Oh, and did I mention that they rarely have seats? And that the Mass lasts for three hours?
So far I am failing to see the fun of an Ethiopian Christmas. Standing in a round room with hundreds of other people all dressed similarly for three hours is not my idea of a good time. It's my idea of a cult wedding. But I digress. Ganna is not about fun or presents, it's about the sanctity of ancient rituals and faith, which is actually pretty cool when you think about it. But Ganna has more to offer than just religious ceremony. There is also a feast. I mean, come on, there is always a feast.
A traditional Ganna feast is made up of a meat stew, usually chicken, that is eaten with an unleavened sourdough pancake-like bread called injera. The bread is usually used to scoop up the stew. I am not going to lie, this is right up my alley. Out of all the traditional Christmas foods we've discussed so far this is definitely my favorite. I mean, ham and green bean casserole is all well and good, but I am totally curious and salivating over the opportunity to dunk bread in stew. I am a dunker, what can I say? Grilled cheese in tomato soup. Oreos in milk. Bread in stew. Anything in anything, really. So any chance I have to add dunking things into my Christmas dinner repertoire I am all for. I wonder how one makes injera?
Good news, Company! I've found the fun in Ethiopian Christmas. My favorite part of Ganna is definitely the sports. Traditionally on Ganna people all over the country play Ethiopian hockey. Except it's not played on ice. And I would suspect that they don't wear pads all over their bodies. The game is called gena or leddat and is similar to field hockey except it is played with sticks with hooks on the end. Which would be wild to see in an ice hockey game. But anyway, with the knowledge that all of Ethiopian Christmas is rooted in ancient tradition, I am sure you can see where this is going. No? Well then I will tell you. The story is that gena was either played by the shepherds in celebration when they heard of the birth of Christ, or that is was being played while the birth occurred. Obviously the stick with a hook on it represents the shepherd's staff and the ball represents, well, it probably just represents a ball. Duh.
So anyway, if you are craving an intensely religious Christmas celebration and you can't get December 25th off, take off January 7 and book your flight to Addis Ababa today. And make sure you pack white. But if you like things like fun or presents or sitting in a pew, then Ganna might not be for you.
Oh, and just a note: The Three Wise Men (or Three Magi) are VERY popular in Ethiopia since tradition holds that the one who was bearing the frankincense was King Balthazar of Ethiopia. Frankincense is an important part of Ganna. It's also very rare and hard to find and it comes from the inside of certain rare trees. Thanks, science!