Ethiopia has many holydays or festivities – are great and colorful events, mostly religious, and frequently take place over several days. Important Christian holidays include Meskel, Christmas, Timket, Ethiopian New year and Easter. Timket, which marks Christ’s baptism, is the most colourful event of the year. In September, the two-day feast of Meskel marks the finding of the True Cross. Kiddus Yohannes/ New Year’s Day come on September 11, which coincides with the end of the season of heavy rains and the beginning of spring. Ashenda is a unique Tigrian traditional festival which takes place in August to mark the ending of fasting called filseta. This event is mostly for girls and young women, which they await very eagerly every year.
The Ethiopian New Year falls in September at the end of the big rains. The sun comes out to shine all day long creating an atmosphere of dazzling clarity and fresh clean sir. The highlands turn to gold as the Meskel daisies burst out in their entire splendor. Ethiopia children, clad in brand-new clothes, dance through the villages giving bouquets of flowers and painted pictures to each household.
September 11 is both New Year’s Day and the feast of St John the Baptist. The day is called Enkutatash in Amharic – meaning the ‘gift of Jewels’. When the famous Queen of Sheba retuned from her expensive journey to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, her chiefs welcomed her back by replenishing her treasury with enku, or jewels. The spring festival has been celebrated since these early times and as the rains come to their abrupt end, dancing and singing can be heard at every village in the green countryside.
Children dressed in new clothes dance through the villages, distributing garlands and tiny paintings. In the evening every house lights a bonfire and there is singing and dancing
The main religious celebration takes place at the 14th-century kidus Yohannes church in the city of Gaynet within the Gondar Region. Three days of prayers, psalms and hymns, and massive colorful processions mark the advent of the New Year. Closer to Addis Ababa, the Raguel Church, on top of Entoto Mountain north of the city, has the largest and most spectacular religious celebration. Enkutatash is not exclusively a religious holiday. The little girls singing and dancing in pretty new dresses among the flowers in the fields convey the message of spring- time and renewed life. Today’s Enkutatash is also the season for exchanging formal New Year greetings and cards among the urban people.
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Meskel is an annual religious holiday commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena, the mother of the great Roman Emperor Constantine (Saint Helena). Meskel happens on 17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27, Gregorian calendar, or September 28 in leap years).
The Meskel celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the dream of a monk in Jerusalem, whose name was Kirakos who revealed to Queen Eleni the exact location of the true cross. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke raised high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
This colourful ceremony has recently been registered under UNESCO as an intangible world heritage.
Timket is a religious celebration in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus Christ in Jordan River. It is celebrated every year on January 19 or 20 on leap year. During the Timket the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar (somewhat like the Western altar stone), is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and born in procession on the head of the priest. The Tabot, which is otherwise rarely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan for baptism.
The divine festivity is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning. Then the nearby body of water is blessed towards dawn and sprinkled on the participants, some of whom enter the water and immerse themselves, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows. But the festival does not end there;
By noon on Timket day a large crowd has assembled at the ritual site, and the Holy Ark is escorted back to its church in colorful procession. The clergy, bearing robes and umbrellas of many hues, perform rollicking dances and songs; the elders march solemnly with their weapons, attended by middle-ages men singing a long-drawn, and the children run about with sticks and games. Dressed up in their finest, the women chatter excitedly on their one real day of freedom in the year. The young braves leap up and down in spirited dances, tirelessly repeating rhythmic songs. When the Holy Ark has been safely restored to its dwelling-place, everyone goes home.
It is a colorful festival. Thought it is celebrated every year in all parts of Ethiopia, it is most colorful to attend the event either in Aksum or Mekelle.
Mariam Zion (Hidar Zion)- Celebration of Saint Mary of Axum is one of the main festivals celebrated in Axum. This festival is celebrated once a year to venerate St. Mary and especially to honour the believed existence of the Ark of the Covenant in St. Mary church of Axum. It is celebrated on November 30th (December 1st in a leap year), Hidar 21 according to the Ethiopian calendar. The celebration starts from the eve of the actual festival date.
St. Mary of Zion claims to contain the original Ark of the Covenant. Reportedly, the Ark was moved to the Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the old church because a divine ‘heat’ from the Tablets had cracked the stones of its previous sanctum. Emperor Haile Selassie’s wife, Empress Menen paid for the construction of the new chapel.
According to tradition, the Ark came to Ethiopia with Minilik I after he visited his father King Solomon, whose mother was the Queen of Sheba. Only the guardian monk may view the Ark, in accordance with the Biblical accounts of the dangers of doing so for non-Kohanim. This lack of accessibility, and questions about the account as a whole, has led foreign scholars to express doubt about the veracity of the claim. The guardian monk is appointed for life by his predecessor before the predecessor dies. If the incumbent guardian dies without naming a successor, then the monks of the monastery hold an election to select the new guardian. The guardian then is confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life, praying before it and offering incense.
Axum Zion (Hidar Zion) is associated with the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum. This church is the first to be built in Ethiopia. This festival is attended by hundreds and thousands of people from all over the World every year, making it one of the most joyous annual pilgrimages in Axum, the “sacred city of the Ethiopians”.
Hosanna (Palm Sunday); it is celebrated before a week of Easter. It commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ with the disciples into Jerusalem. People welcomed Jesus by spreading palm branches.
The best place to observe this colorful ceremony is at St. Mary Zion Church in Axum. The celebration took the story from the bible and a role-play of it is played by the priests on that day.
Ashenda is a unique Tigrian traditional festival which takes place in August to mark the ending of fasting called filseta. This event is mostly for girls and young women, which they await very eagerly every year. It is unique to the people in the state of Tigrai in northern Ethiopia. The name of the festival “Ashenda” comes from the name of a tall grass that the girls make in to a skirt and ware it around their waist as a decoration.
The young women and girls dress the best traditional dresses called tilfi which is a cotton dress decorated with amazing embroidery from the neck to toe in front of the dress. The girls also adorned themselves with array of beautiful jewellery.
After they gather in the village or city center they divide in to small groups and they go house to house singing and playing their drums. They stop at ever house and sing and dance for the people in the houses. It is customary for people to give them money, food and drinks and other items for their efforts. They continue the whole day going from house to house and occasionally stopping in a village or city center and singing and dancing for a while before they go on again on their tour.
A week or so after the celebrations started, the event comes to an end with all the girls from the village or the town coming together in the centre of the town or a village singing and dancing until sun down. This time the young boys join in more like spectators than active players.