Being Women

An Ethiopian Christmas.

Ethiopia celebrated the Christmas of 2015 this month, on 8th January 2023.

Surprised? Do you know why this East African country is seven years behind the rest of the world?

Why do they celebrate Christmas in January?

Believed to be 2000 years old, Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world. With more than 80 ethnic groups and as many languages, the country was known as Abyssinia in olden times. With religion playing a major influence in life here, the population comprises the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Islam and an ancient form of Judaism. After the Roman church amended the calendar in 525 AD, Ethiopians continued with the same calendar and follow it to this day. Based on the ancient Coptic calendar, this Chronology comprises 13 months – 12 months of 30 days each and the last month with 5 or 6 days. The Ethiopian calendar is seven to eight years behind the International Gregorian Calendar, as the date of the proclamation of the birth of Jesus Christ is calculated differently.

Christmas is termed “Genna” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. Many Orthodox Christian churches around the world celebrate Christmas Day on or around January 7 to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible. It is believed that one of the Wise Men who visited Jesus came from Ethiopia.

Genna is a purely religious festival with unique traditions. Gifts are generally not given; rather the importance is for the rituals and ceremonies. Beginning on November 25th and ending on Jan 7th, believers follow “Tsome Nebiyat” (Fast of the Prophets). One vegan meal is eaten a day after 3 PM. Meat, dairy products, and eggs are avoided. On Genna eve, people fast all day.

Ethiopians wear all white for Christmas, usually a ‘Netela’. Worn like a shawl, this white cotton garment has brightly coloured stripes across the ends. Orthodox Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve ‘Gahad’. Believers visit various churches on foot to take part in the services before dawn, with chanting & singing.

As per an old Ethiopian legend, when the shepherds heard about the birth of Jesus, they celebrated by playing a spontaneous game using their wooden staffs. This hockey-like game is called Yágenna Chewata. The traditional food served during Christmas includes ‘wat’ – varieties of thick stew of meat/egg/vegetables and spices served with “injera”, a crepe made from fermented Teff grains. The meal is accompanied by popcorn, bread, salad, homemade honey wine and freshly brewed coffee.

The celebrations at Lalibela hold the most attraction. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, thousands of pilgrims gather in the hills around the rock-hewn churches. Timket (Epiphany) is celebrated a week after Genna, to mark the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. The celebrations are a dazzling display of the country’s rich cultural heritage and the warmth & friendliness of the people.

 You can wish everyone peace and health on the occasion of the Ethiopian Christmas by saying “Melkam Genna !” (“Merry Christmas”).

By Deepa Perumal

Deepa Perumal is an MBA student & management professional, and a passionate advocate for women’s empowerment. As a career mentor, entrepreneur, and multilingual author, she shares her insights through blogging and writing features on history, world cultures, travelogues and memoirs. Contact her at

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