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Christmas in Eritrea

Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas two weeks after December 25th 


By Natnael Yebio

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year or is it Happy New year and Merry Christmas, perhaps it is Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Merry Christmas again! The reason I bring this up is the Eritrean society celebrates two Christmas’s in a space of 14 days. When I say two Christmas’s I am talking about the one that is on the 25th of December and the other which is on January the 7th.

A couple days after celebrating Christmas, I make my way to work and as usual I say hello to the security guard-who is a bit old yet so alive and fun- and ask him how Christmas was and the old man looked at me with bewilderment and said “Christmas is in two weeks!”, I knew what he was talking about but asked him if he had celebrated the one that was on the 25th and the man furiously replied, ”Those Fascist where at our throat for half a century?” referring to the Italians and the British he added “In no way possible am I celebrating “THEIR” Christmas!”

Eritrea is among the first countries which embraced the great world religions Christianity and Islam.

It is even assumed that there were Jewish communities in Eritrea long before Christianity was introduced and that is the reason why the Eritrean Orthodox church has many Judaic aspects like keeping the Sabbath, harboring copies of the Arc of Covenant (Tabot) and pork prohibition.


Both religions have influenced almost all aspects of life in Eritrea as in the rest of the world. They are binding forces of the society and have great roles in civilization. Education, literature, architecture, legislature and administration in Eritrea are strongly influenced by them. Christmas, which is celebrated on the 7th of January, is second to Easter, the most highly revered Christian holiday in Eritrea.

January is a very important month in Eritrea; Orthodox Christians in Eritrea begin the month of December with a 40-day fasting and all-vegetable diet that continues until January 7, when Christmas is celebrated with feasting, family and a lengthy church service.

The hassle to get ready typically starts several days before Christmas; there is much activity in the city markets, people buying and selling things for the feast.

Especially a day or two ahead of Christmas the streets are crowded with people who want to buy animals such as sheep, goat, cow or hen. The market is buzzing with people chatting and doing last-minute grocery shopping for the holidays.

People usually check an animal before purchasing to ensure it provides enough meat. There is no fixed price for the animals; hence, both buyers and sellers negotiate until they reach to what they think is a fair price. Making a deal is a long and funny process.

Another way of acquiring food is that there is a special Eritrean custom that a group of people buy a cow or an ox, slaughter it and share the flesh, referred to as (Guzzi). This is a long tradition in Eritrea that shows the cohesion or cooperative nature of the society against individualism.

It may not be affordable or is a tedious job for one family to buy and carry a whole cow. Hence, the feasible way is to form a group, buy a cow and share it so that everybody can happily celebrate Christmas.

On the eve of Christmas fathers slaughter a sheep a goat or at least a hen. Most people prefer a sheep to a goat but some argue a goat is much cheaper and has much more meat. Mothers or daughters take the last steps of brewing Swa, homemade beer; bake Injera, a thin, flat spongy sour bread preferably made of Taff flour and cook Zgni, a hot meat stew. Green straw (Setti) is spread on the floor and maybe a soothing incense smoke fills the room. The whole event is very exciting and every family member contributes at some point during the whole process.

For small children in the country side slaughtering an animal is like losing an animal they knew like a family member or a friend, therefore it is an unhappy event even though it is a special occasion that had to be celebrated. For children living in the city it is exciting to see their parents bringing along an animal on the eve of Christmas and just like a normal pet it is quite touching to see a little kid playing with the animal and asking his parents for permission if they can take it outside for a while and feed it. The very next day though when they see the animal slaughtered they tend to be not very amused. However, as the friendship only lasted one day their sorrow is not as deep as that of village children.

There is one extreme case, namely if a family happens to have guests from abroad. Diaspora children enjoy eating meat and meat products purchased in the supermarket almost every day and have little or no contact with live animals. Such children are extremely shocked to see animals slaughtered. They protest and try to stop the brutal event. Some refuse even to eat from the meat and swear to remain vegetarian for the rest of their lives.

Up comes the day and at Christmas morning people go to church, Eritrean men dressed in traditional outfits sit on one side of the aisle, while the women, in traditional white Zuria dresses and head pieces that cover up their hair, are seated on the other. At the front, you’ll see the priest in his gold robe —he’ll have five helpers with white veils wrapped around their shoulders, and celebrate the Divine Liturgy, listening to readings of Bible verses in the old Geez language and Jared choir songs (Qdassie) sung by the priests accompanied with rhythmic drum beats and cymbals in the orthodox and Geez Catholic churches.

After the church service is over and everybody is back to their homes, the men are given a glass of the home brewed beer and entertain guests while the mother and daughters are roaming around the house doing the final preparations of the food and drinks,on the other hand the kids are told to sit tight and not dirty their clothes, which is naturally a frustrating thing for the kids as all they want to do is go outside and play with their friends: nonetheless this whole combination spreads a special smell in the air which creates a festive atmosphere. Then the tasty meal is set on the table. Prayer is said by a father, the eldest or a senior member of the family and then everyone can spread his fingers and enjoy eating the delicious zgni with injera. One might overeat on this day even in poor families because as a rule there is abundant delicate food on the table.

Should there be a poor family in a village which cannot afford to slaughter even a hen, then the ones who are blessed with abundance see it as their obligation even as an opportunity to get God’s blessing to help such a family. Coffee with Popcorn or Himbasha, homemade Eritrean bread is served after eating the meal.

It is not unusual to observe on the eve of Christmas people lining up before shops to buy Panettone and then carry it home in flocks. Being affordable almost for everybody, it seems at least in the cities that it is winning favor over the traditional bread Himbasha on Christmas day.

Rich families get usually a visit from guest musicians, playing Wata, who hope to earn some money. The musicians are usually offered a cup (Wantcha) or two of Swa or even a piece of Injera with Zgni and some Nakfas.

In the afternoon and evening adult males stroll through the city streets for meeting friends, taking fresh air or a walk that might help them digest the heavy meal. Many of them attired in their white Habesha costume, a long loosely worn shirt (Shifon) and fine cotton shall (Netzela) over strangely tailored trousers, which one might think they were made for horse riders (Gtr). Their final destination is a coffee house, Swa local or Myes local where they sip a beer, Swa, Myies (a liquor made from fermented honey) cappuccino or whatever they enjoy to drink.

Children usually get new clothes or shoes on Christmas, for me when I see it now that is basically the equivalent of receiving gifts on December 25th. After enjoying their lunch they might play outside with other children boasting how fine their new clothes or shoes are, while the youth are off to town to meet with their friends or significant other and go to pubs, the cinema and have a night out. Also there are those who celebrate Christmas with decorated Christmas trees, candles, candies and Panettone, a delicious Italian cake. Celebrating Christmas with a Christmas tree and sharing gifts has become popular and widespread even among the orthodox Christians of Eritrea that people start putting up Christmas tree as soon as it is December and it is just not the households that put up Christmas trees, major coffee parlors around Asmara are decorated with eye catching Christmas trees and lights, such is the case that it has become a tradition over the last two, three years, to take your kids or little siblings to town to enjoy the sparkling lights or perhaps take a picture with Santa Clause.

At the end of it all, I believe we are quite lucky to have two Christmas dates to celebrate. For the kids it is a joy to receive gifts and take a day off from school and for our society in general it cements our ability to harmoniously acknowledge and share both Christmas’s equally. Happy New Year and Merry Christmas Everybody! Happy feasting as well! 
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Christmas in Eritrea Reviewed by Admin on 6:56 PM Rating: 5

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