Ganna (Qillee): Christmas in Ethiopia
Christmas in Ethiopia is called Ganna (or Genna) and is celebrated on January 7th. An important Ethiopian holiday, visitors in the country can get an insight into the religious traditions and culture of the African nation.
Ganna comes 12 days before the Timkat festival, another important holiday. Travelers with an Ethiopian eVisa can spend up to 90 days in Ethiopia and are therefore able to enjoy both events on one trip.
The information below explains how Christmas is marked in Ethiopia and the best places to spend the holiday as a tourist.
Why do Ethiopians Celebrate Christmas on January 7th?
Like many Orthodox churches around the world, Christmas is on January 7th in Ethiopia. As the months of the Ethiopian calendar are different, Ganna is on the 29th day of the month of Tahsas.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers January 7th to be the day of Jesus’ birth and is therefore the day for major religious activity in Ethiopia.
Fortunately for travelers, January is one of the best months to visit Ethiopia as the weather is warm and there is little rainfall.
Ethiopian Christmas 2023
Ganna falls on Friday 7th January in 2023. Visitors hoping to travel to Ethiopia for the festivity in January 2023 should apply for an Ethiopian eVisa at least 72 hours before departure.
How Do They Celebrate Christmas in Ethiopia?
Ganna is a strictly religious occasion with its own unique traditions. The giving of gifts is not central to the Ethiopian Christmas tradition, rather the focus is on ritual and ceremony.
The main ceremonial activities take place in and around Ethiopian Orthodox churches, with locals taking part in processions and special services. Some of the most important features of Ganna are explained below.
Ethiopians fast for 43 days before Christmas
Many Ethiopians carry out a 43-day fast in the lead up to Christmas day. The fast begins on November 25th, a day known as Tsome Nebiyat (Fast of the Prophets), and is held through to January 7th.
Ethiopians eat just one meal a day for 43 days, the meals should be free from meat, dairy, and eggs which are all avoided during periods of fasting.
Ethiopians dress in white of Christmas day
Visitors in Ethiopia for Ganna should expect to see the locals dressed completely in white on Christmas day.
Many people wear a traditional item of clothing called a Netela. Worn in a similar way to a shawl, the Netela is a white cotton garment with woven colored borders.
As Ethiopia’s traditional dress, the Netela is worn on a number of other public holidays and festive occasions.
Ethiopians attend church on Christmas Eve
As Ganna is a very religious occasion on the Ethiopian calendar, Orthodox Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve (January 6th), known in Ethiopia as the gahad of Christmas.
The church service typically begins at around 6 pm and continues through to the early hours of Christmas day. Chanting and singing are central to the services, many people go from church to church on foot to take part in various services before the break of dawn.
A game called genna is played at Ethiopian Christmas
One Ethiopian legend claims that the shepherds of the Christmas story heard about the birth of Jesus, they celebrated the news with a spontaneous game using their wooden staffs that resembled hockey.
For this reason, on Christmas day mainly boys and young men play a game similar to hockey with a curved wooden stick and ball. The game is called Yágenna Chewata, or genna for short.
Ethiopian Christmas Food
One similarity between Christmas in Ethiopia and in other areas of the world is the importance of food.
The 43-day fast is broken at daybreak on January 7th with a light meal. Later in the day a Doro Wat, a spicy stew containing meat and vegetables, and sometimes topped with an egg is eaten. Injera, Ethiopian flatbreads, are used to scoop up and eat the stew.
The same dish is eaten during Ethiopia’s Timkat festival, another important date on the Ethiopian calendar.
The meal is accompanied by tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
Where to Celebrate Ganna in Ethiopia
Ganna is celebrated throughout Ethiopia so travelers can experience the holiday wherever they are staying.
Tourists who wish to see the most important Christmas ceremonies in Ethiopia should go to the holy city of Lalibela. Lalibela is a town in the north of the country known for its churches cut into the rock and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At Christmas time the population of Lalibela almost doubles as thousands of pilgrims descend on the town and gather in the hills around the rock-hewn churches.
Visitors hoping to stay in or around Lalibela at this time are recommended to book accommodation well in advance.
The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is another good place to spend Ethiopian Christmas.
Ethiopia (and especially the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) celebrates Christmas on January 7th, not December 25th. The Ethiopian Calendar has different months – and Christmas in on the 29th of Tahsas. Many other orthodox churches around the world also celebrate Christmas on the 7th January. The calendar the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church uses originally came from calendar used by the Coptic Orthodox Church (which is based in Egypt) but now has it’s own special days.
The Christmas celebration in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is called Ganna or Genna. Most people go to Church on Christmas day.
Many people take part in a special Advent fast during the 43 days before Christmas. It starts on 25th November and is known as the ‘Fast of the Prophets’ (Tsome Nebiyat). During this time, traditionally only one vegan meal is eaten each day. It’s a vegan meal because during the fast, foods including meat, dairy, eggs and wine aren’t eaten.
For Ganna, people get dressed in white. Most people wear a traditional garment called a Netela. It’s a thin white cotton piece of cloth with brightly colored stripes across the ends. It’s worn like a shawl or toga. If you live in a big town or city you might wear ‘western’ clothes. People go to church mass on Christmas Eve (called the gahad of Christmas) at 6.00pm and the service finishes about 3.00am on Christmas Day.
The Ethiopian capital city is Addis Ababa. It’s a modern city. Most people who live outside big cities live in round house made of mud-plastered walls which have thatched cone-shaped roofs. Sometimes houses in the country are rectangular and made of stone.
The design of Ethiopian Church is similar to the houses. In the country, they are often very old and have been carved out of rock. In cities, modern churches are built in three circles, each within the others.
The choir sings from the outer circle. Everyone who goes to church for the Ganna celebrations is given a candle. The people walk around the church three times in a solemn procession, holding the candles. They then go to the second circle to stand during the service. The men and boys are separated from the women and girls. The center circle is the most important and holy place in the church and is where the priest serves the Holy Communion or Mass.
It’s also a tradition that one of the Wise Men who visited Jesus came from Ethiopia.
Around the time of Ganna, the men and boys play a game that is also called ganna. It’s played with a curved stick and a round wooden ball, a bit like hockey.
Traditional Christmas foods in Ethiopia include ‘wat’ which is a thick and spicy stew that contains meat, vegetables and sometimes eggs (sounds yummy!). Wat is eaten on a plate of ‘injera’ – a flat bread. Pieces of the injera are used as an edible spoon to scoop up the wat.
Twelve days after Ganna, on 19th January, Ethiopians start the three day celebration of Timkat. It celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Children walk to church services in a procession. They wear the crowns and robes of the church youth groups that they belong to. Adults wear the Netela. The priests wear red and white robes and carry embroidered fringed umbrellas.
Musical instruments are played during the Timkat procession. The sistrum is a percussion instrument with tinkling metal disks a bit like a vertical tambourine. A makamiya, a long T-shaped prayer stick is used to keep the rhythm and is also used by the priests and a stick to lean on during the long Timkat church service!
Ethiopian men also play a sport called yeferas guks. It’s played on horseback and the men throw ceremonial lances at each other (sounds rather dangerous!).
People don’t give and receive present during Ganna and Timkat. Sometimes children might be given a small gift of some clothes from their family members. It’s more a time for going to church, eating lots and playing games!
Santa Claus is a fairly recent visitor to Ethiopia, only being known about through ‘western’ Christmas traditions. In the Amharic language, Father Christmas or Santa Claus is called ‘Yágena Abãt’ which means ‘Christmas Father’.
Happy/Merry Christmas in Amharic is ‘Melikam Gena!’ (መልካም ገና!). Happy/Merry Christmas in lots more languages.
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