Ethiopia: Melkam Ganna (Merry Christmas)!



Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in Africa that has among others a unique calendar, which is very close to the ancient Julian calendar.

Ethiopians mark Christmas and Christ’s birth on 7 January – it is called Ganna and it will not be an exaggeration to say it is the most colourfully celebrated holiday in the country.

Celebrations begin on the eve where people gather at churches to pray and chant.

Pilgrims flock to Lalibela's rock-hewn churches for Christmas
Pilgrims flock to Lalibela's rock-hewn churches for Christmas

Usually most Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast the whole day on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day, just before dawn, believers dress in the traditional “shamma” – a white cotton wrap with brightly coloured stripes across the ends – and gather for the early morning mass.

Each person entering the church will be given a candle and the celebrations begin under flickering candles.

Priests dressed in turbans and red and white robes and carrying beautifully embroidered fringed umbrellas will begin the colourful procession with prayers and songs.

Deacons and choirs will also join the priests in song and dancing and veneration of their creator.

The sound of bells and music from the churches are heard far and wide until the late hours of the morning. Before the end of the service, priests will serve Holy Communion to worshipers.

The place to really experience a traditional Ganna is in Lalibela – found in north-east Ethiopia. Pilgrims travel for days to attend colourful ceremonies at the rock-hewn churches nestled in the hillside.

Around the time of Ganna, young and also older men play a hockey-like game that is also called Ganna, which is played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball.

Traditional Christmas dish includes “injera”, a sourdough pancake-like bread, and “doro wat”, a spicy chicken stew served in a wide watertight basket.

On their return from church, families gather around these wide baskets to enjoy the holiday meal together.

Ganna is not an occasion for giving gifts in Ethiopia. Religious observance, feasting, and games are the focus of the season.

Twelve days after Ganna, on 19 January, Ethiopians begin a three-day celebration called Timkat, in commemoration of the baptism of Christ.

But that will be a topic for another day. For now Melkam Ganna (Merry Christmas)!