Ethiopian Christmas is on Tahasas (4th month of the Ethiopian Calendar) 29th or on January 7th (Western Calendar). I had thought Tahasas 29th was Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, but quickly learned that all Ethiopian Christian sects, including Ethiopian Catholics and Protestants, celebrate Christmas on Tahasas 29th and that December 25th is considered “foreigner’s Christmas.”
I was raised Catholic because my family converted to Catholicism after receiving assistance from Catholic Social Services when we immigrated to the U.S. But my family in Ethiopia is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. This was the first year I celebrated Ethiopian Christmas. For the occasion, one of my uncles signed me up for a Church pilgrimage to Lalibela. It was a great opportunity for me to see historical sites and to learn about the Orthodox Church. I traveled by bus with a group of 60 other Ethiopians to the churches of Lalibela, the monasteries of Lake Tanna in Bahir Dar, and other historical and religious sites. Here’s a picture of me on the beautiful Lake Tanna.
There are about 23 monasteries or ገዳሞች (gedamwoch) around Lake Tanna. I visited a handful of them, and got to witness some of the መነኩሴ (meneksay), priests and nuns, who live in the monasteries doing the skilled craft that their monasteries are known for. Here is one meneksay weaving a matt or basket.
One day, I even separated from the group I was traveling with to go visit the 6 medieval castles of northern Gondar. The oldest castle in Gondar belonged to Emperor Fasilides and is from the early17th century. Here I am in front of Fasilides’s castle, and then in front of the two castles of his son, Emperor Yohannes, and his grandson, Emperor Iyasu.
Before Ethiopian Christmas, or ገና (Gena), as it is called, there is a period of fasting, or ፆመ (tsohme). People who observe tsohme strictly only eat two meals a day, skipping breakfast, and they don’t eat meat or consume any animal products. The Church pilgrimage observed tsohme strictly. For many, the point of fasting and going on this pilgrimage was to endure a little discomfort and hardship, as a form of sacrifice to God. Some of the discomforts included sleeping in tents or simply under the night sky, taking bucket baths in open fields or if we were lucky in a covered place, or simply going without bathing.
At every church or holy sight we visited we collected ፀበል (tsebel), or holy water, or tookፃዲቅ, በረከት, ዳቤ (tsadike, bereket, and dabay), blessed food or bread from the monasteries we visited to bring back to our loved ones in Addis Ababa. We arrived in the city of Lalibela in time for the massive Gena celebration and stayed there for 4 days. In the city of Lalibela there are 11 churches, Saint Gabriel, Saint Eybanos, Medahnya Alem (Savior), Saint Michael, House of the Cross, Saint Mary, Saint Mark, Saint Emmanuel, Saint George, and Saint Dinagel, each carved out of the stone of the surrounding mountain. These churches are believed to be about 900 years old, but their ages are still disputed. According to religious legends, the Emperor turned Saint, Lalibela, who was a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, which was in power in Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries, carved out each of the churches with the help of the Holy Spirit. The most recognizable church in Lalibela is ቤተ ጊዮርጊስ, Saint George, because of its intricacy and the distinct cross carved into the roof of the Church. Each of the 11 churches of Lalibela are so intricately carved and chiseled and to think they were each carved outand hollowed out of the surrounding mountain 900 years ago is astounding. Another interesting site in Lalibela is the pitch dark tunnel in between two of the Lalibela churches. It represents the pathway to hell. Here is a picture of people emerging after me from the ጨለማ (chilima) or darkness.
On Gena eve, the meneksay of the 11 churches of Lalibela (that’s about 800 priests) perform a ceremony at Saint Mary’s Church. The ceremony begins at 7 pm on Gena eve and goes through the night and ends at about 10 am on Gena day. The meneksay perform the ceremonial hymnal singing, drumming, and parading of religious paintings on the carpets they lay down next to Saint Mary’s Church.
From there I watched the15 hour ceremony. You can see just how many people gathered for the ceremony, even though many couldn’t get close enough to see it. I tried, unsuccessfully, to stay awake the whole night, but fell asleep for a time to the soothing hymnal singing. I was frequently awoken though by my fear of either being stepped on or accidentally falling off the cliff I was sleeping on.
At about 8 am on Gena day, the priests made their way up to the mountain ledge so they could look down on Saint Mary’s Church. Those of us who were seated on the ledge made our way down to the ground next to Saint Mary’s Church, where hundreds of others had stayed the night. From there, we watched the priests continue singing, drumming, and parading from above this time.
Two of the other highlights of the trip were climbing up the mountains surrounding the city of Lalibela, and visiting a 1,500-year-old church in a cave. The mountains surrounding the city of Lalibela is where legend has it Lalibela came to think and pray before finding the inspiration to go down to the city and carve the 11 churches, The scariest section of the climb to Lalibela’s reflection spot was the wooden ladder, pictured here, because it did not feel very stable. It was wonderful accomplishing the climb though and having the support of my fellow pilgrims.
And lastly, here I am in front of the 1,500-year-old church in a cave with the equally old calling drum.
When I returned from my trip, I got started analyzing some of the information we’d gathered in our Agazh study. I split the studies into three groups, so I had manageable numbers. Meaning, I worked with 35 studies at a time, instead of all the studies at once. These aren’t the real numbers, but as examples, here is how I began making sense of some of the responses:
Language: Question # 8
Of the 35 study participants, there are 16 native Amharengnya speakers, 12 native Orominya speakers, 3 native Tigraynya speakers, 2 native Somalinya speakers, and 2 native Guraganya speakers.
Alcohol Consumption: Question # 18
Of the 35 study participants, 19 stated they do not consume alcohol, 11 reported consuming alcohol rarely, only on holidays and special occasions, 3 reported consuming alcohol occasionally, no more than once a month, 1 reported consuming alcohol often, at least once a week, and 1 reported consuming alcohol every day.
Of the 16 study participants who stated they consume alcohol either rarely, occasionally, often, or every day, 8 reported drinking tela (local beer) or beer, 2 reported drinking arekay (local hard liquor) or hard liquor, 1 reported drinking tela (local beer) or beer and tej (local wine) or wine, 1 reported drinking tej (local wine) or wine and arekay (local hard liquor) or hard liquor, and 4 reported drinking tela (local beer) or beer and arekay (local hard liquor) or hard liquor.
In addition to considering what some of these answers can teach us about our populations’ habits, economic statuses, health statuses, and social statuses, I also studied some sample project proposals that our consultant, w/o Zenebwork, gave me. They assisted me in beginning an outline for an Agazh project proposal so we can apply for grant funding. Many embassies in Addis provide some funding to a select few local organizations based on their project proposals. Many deadlines to compete for funding are at the end of March/early April, so I am working with w/o Zenebwork, who has experience writing successful grant proposals for other organizations, to write our proposals.