On the eve of Christmas, looking over the hills, down into the city, a fog is rising over the town of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That fog, rising up from the dust of the roads and smoke off the charcoal fires, tells you January 7th is quickly approaching. It means that Christmas is just over the horizon.
Following the Julian calendar, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th. The preparations, however, begin long before. During the 40 days leading up to Christmas, or Genna, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians observe a vegan fast – eating only one meal a day in the afternoon or evening that does not include meat or dairy products. The fasting purifies the body and allows for spiritual preparation.
On Christmas, a feast is prepared, including a traditional stew-like dish called Doro Wot, which is made with a rooster and spiced chili (called berbere). The rooster is carved into 12 pieces, representing the 12 disciples, and is served along with 12 hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing eternity.
Former ONE staffer Tsegaye Hidru grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and while he doesn’t participate in the fasting today, he still celebrates with the traditional meal on January 7. In fact, his girlfriend started cooking the berbere on Monday—a process that takes at least 3 to 4 hours!
Tsegaye has fond memories of celebrating Genna in Ethiopia as a child, setting up their Christmas tree, helping to purchase a rooster or sheep at the market and watching a holiday special program on national TV. Although it’s not seen in the city, in the countryside, some people also enjoy a hockey-like ball game called Ye Genna Chewata.
Tsegaye’s favorite part was always the days leading up to Genna, when they went to the market to get new shoes and clothes for Christmas. He said that at night, in the last few days before the big celebration, you could look out over the city and see a fog settling over the houses, as the firewood was lit in every kitchen to begin cooking the feast, scenting the spirit of a holiday.
Today, as Tsegaye’s family in Ethiopia sits down to their Christmas feast, he will be celebrating from afar with his neighbors and friends.