Ethiopian Christmas at a glance

Unlike the Christmas you might be familiar with, the Ethiopian variety has a noticeable lack of tangled tinsel, red bobble hats and flickering, multicoloured lights intertwined amongst conifer branches.

Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated on the 7th January on the Gregorian calendar, or the 29th of Tahsas on the Ethiopian calendar. 

In the run up to Christmas, practitioners are expected to partake in a 43 day fast known as ‘Tsome Nebiyat’ or the ‘Fast of the Prophets’.

During this period, believers must abstain from all non-vegan products and psychoactive substances, including alcohol and can only consume one meal per day.

Beginning on the 25th November, the fast is believed to clear the body of sin, allowing those who partake the opportunity to cleanse the spirit in anticipation of the birth of their saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

The Festivities

During the festivities, a traditional thin, white cotton garment tapered with brightly coloured stripes either end, called a Netela, is worn.  

On Christmas eve, or the ‘gahad of Christmas’, Ethiopians attend overnight mass, usually starting around 6pm and finishing at 3am. 

Within the often circular churches, people line up around the sides of the church and begin a long looping procession around the circumference of the church, sound-tracked by a heavenly choir and a range of traditional instruments such as sistrum, a tamborine shaped drum. 

At this point the congregation are given candles, and follow the priest around the church as bestows blessings for the year upon those he passes.

Once they have passed by twice, the congregation are divided by gender and gather round the centre circle, where the priest conducts mass.

A popular pastime on Christmas day is the traditional sport Yeferas Guks. Based on a centuries old hunting tradition, the game is played on horseback and involves combatants throwing ceremonial spears at each other, in an attempt to knock their opponents off their steads.

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

The spirit of the celebration

Unlike the consumerist west, it is not common for Ethiopians to exchange gifts.

The festivities are about a communal experience, and a commitment to faith. Christmas in Ethiopia is an experience unlike any other, harking back to days long forgotten in the west. 

The best place to be to experience Ethiopian Christmas is Lalibela. Pilgrims flock to the rock-hewn churches, adorned in white robes. Attending service in the dark of night in the deep, subterranean passageways of those ancient churches is an experience you cannot ever forget. 

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

Experience Ethiopian Christmas on these trips