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Christmas in Ethiopia

Having been converted in AD 330, Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world and Christmas there is quite unlike anywhere else. It is primarily a religious observance, largely untouched by the commercialization and emphasis on gift-giving that has spread elsewhere, and begins with a 40-day fast. Though the fast is not as strict as that Lenten period that precedes Easter it is still a time for physical and spiritual disciplines which prepare the body and soul for Christmas.

 Ethiopians, following the Coptic calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 7. In churches around the country candle-lit processions take place and people stand (there are no pews in an Ethiopian church) for the mass that may last up to three hours. In the country’s spiritual capital Lalibela, home to ancient churches, thousands come every year in pilgrimage. They spend the night before Christmas in a vigil of prayer, singing and dancing. In the morning a great procession carries the Ark of the Covenant to the top of a nearby hill where the liturgy is celebrated. After the service there is more dancing, feasting and, for the men and boys, a game of genna, a kind of hockey played only on Christmas. This game is said to date from the time of the birth of Jesus when the shepherds who had just heard the good news from the angles waved their staffs in joy.

 Food served at Christmas will include injera, a spongy flat bread on which doro wat, a chicken stew (spicy like every other Ethiopian dish) or other main course, will be spread. A piece of the injera is then broken off to to scoop up the stew. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas in Ethiopia and is usually directed only toward children who will receive something simple such as new clothes.

One foreign custom that has crept into Ethiopian Christmas celebrations is the Christmas tree. Such is the demand for the trees in the area of the capital Addis Ababa that the government has had to impose conservation measures to save the local juniper trees from extinction.

Two weeks after Christmas is Timket, or Epiphany, (pictured above) which is an even greater festival lasting three days in honour of the baptism of Jesus and St. Michael. More gift-giving takes place and more feasting.

Today in History: January 17



395 A bad day for the Roman Empire

The death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347-395) meant the permanent separation of the eastern and western halves of the realm and his succession by a pair of nitwit sons unable to deal with the barbarian incursions.

Theodosius was a general and politician who emerged as emperor out of the civil wars that followed the death of Valens who died in 378 battling the Visigoths. His reign was extremely consequential. On the positive side he summoned the First Council of Constantinople which established Trinitarian orthodoxy; he suppressed pagan sacrifices, gladiatorial games, child slavery, and the Olympic Games. His massacre of civilians in Thessalonika led to his excommunication by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Theodosius was forced (above) to repent and beg forgiveness before being allowed the sacraments, an act which clergy over the centuries used as an example of the supremacy of the Church over the State.

His death in 395 led to the empire being split between incompetent sons, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.

Feast of the Ass


A part of the  celebration of Christmas in medieval French churches when parody of sacred services and social inversion were allowed and when clergymen were given license for light-hearted behaviour that was unthinkable during the rest of the year.

 The Feast of the Ass, usually held on January 14, celebrated the role played in the Nativity by the humble donkey, the beast who carried Mary to Bethlehem, who stood over the baby Jesus in the stable and who carried the Holy Family to safety in Egypt when King Herod was bent on killing the infant. As the clergy or students paraded toward the church where the ass was to be honoured they sang a “hymn of praise”:

From Oriental country came/ A lordly ass of highest fame,/  So beautiful, so strong and trim,/ No burden was too great for him./  Hail, Sir Donkey, hail!

 For the ceremony itself a donkey was often brought into the church and during the Mass which ended the service the congregation made donkey noises. Like the Feast of Fools, with which the Feast of the Ass was linked, this sort of behaviour eventually grew too outrageous to be tolerated and the church moved to suppress it. By the sixteenth century it had almost entirely disappeared from the Christmas scene.

St Knut’s Day

On January 13, known as St Knut’s Day or Hilarymas, Swedish and Norwegian children enjoy one last festive party and then the decorations and trees are taken down. The folk saying is “Twentieth day Knut, Driveth Yule out.” There are records of two medieval St. Knuts (or Canute), one was a martyred Danish king of the eleventh century, the other a martyred duke of the twelfth century.



From the Greek epiphania, or manifestation. Celebrated in both Eastern and Western churches on January 6, Epiphany marks a number of important appearances or manifestations: the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle at Cana and the Feeding of the 5000.

 Its first appearance seems to have been in the second century A.D. among the Basilidean heretics of Alexandria who believed that Jesus did not become divine until his baptism which they claim had taken place on January 6. Though this idea of a late-acquired divinity was rejected by orthodox Christianity, some churches seem to have used the date to celebrate Christ’s earthly birth — an epiphany of a different kind. When in the fourth century Rome adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity the Western churches’ Epiphany emphasis shifted to focus on the Magi while in the East strees was placed on the baptism. The period between these two important holy dates became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Epiphany became an official holiday in the Eastern Roman Empire, marked by a ban on chariot racing and attending games in the arena and by ceremonies of blessing the waters. At these ceremonies the emperor would drink the waters three times to the cry of “The emperor drinks!” The blessing of the waters takes place even today in Orthodox denominations. A priest will bless a body of water, either inside, or by a lake, river or sea and the faithful take it home where it will be used to sprinkle on houses, barns and fields to ensure prosperity for the coming year. In some places the priest will throw a cross into the water and divers will race to be the one to recover it.

In the West Epiphany was a day to celebrate the visitation of the Magi or the Three Kings as they became known. Religious services honouring the Magi gradually turned into dramas held outside of the church such as The Play of Herod. As returning Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought back stories of the fabulous east, fascination with the Magi grew — cities held processions honouring the Kings and carols retelling their journeys were sung. (The remnants of these customs are the Star Boys and their January pilgrimages from door to door.) Epiphany came to be a time all across Europe for popular celebrations marked by eating a cake and gift-giving. 

King Cake

The “Kings’ Cake”, or galette des rois, was so called because it was traditionally served at Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings, the Magi who visited the baby Jesus. It is first mentioned in the early 1300s in France, from which it spread to Germany and then much of the rest of Europe.

 In 1792 French revolutionaries tried to suppress the selling of “king cakes” as irreconcilable with the republican sentiment they wished to foster. In Bourdeaux they were called instead “cakes of liberty”. Epiphany was stripped of its religious connections and celebrated as part of “la fête des sans-culottes” (the festival of the revolutionary working class). In Paris 1794 on Christmas Eve (4 Nivôse III in the new republican calendar) the mayor ordered the arrest of pastry cooks for their “liberticidal tendencies”. Taverns named after the Three Kings, who had come to be regarded as the patron saints of inns, changed their names to avoid incurring the wrath of radicals.

It was sometimes the custom in France for the first two pieces of the cake to be set aside for the bon Dieu and the Virgin and for these pieces to be given to the poor who knocked on the door at Epiphany.

The custom crossed the Atlantic to New Orleans where the King Cake now contains a bean or plastic baby. He who finds the prize must host the next King Cake party, hundreds of which are held every Epiphany. One Mardi Gras organization even uses the King Cake tradition to choose the queen of its annual ball.

John Canoe

“John Canoe”, “Junkanoo”, “Jonkonnu”, “Koonering”, etc., are terms for carnival-like celebrations held in the Caribbean, Honduras, Belize, and North Carolina derived from a holiday and period of social inversion for slaves during the Christmas seasons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slave owners used the custom as a safety valve, much like Saturnalia in the Roman empire; slaves used it to subvert and mock the the established order.

There is no agreement whatsoever on the origins of the name. Some hold it to be derived from African deities, others from Mayan ritual, others from the name of a slave owner and still others assert that it was the name of a slave. Today participants dance and parade in elaborate costumes and attract thousands of tourists to these spectacles.

Feast of Fools

The Feast of the Fools was usually held on January 1 and was under the direction of the lower clergy who used the occasion to elect a Bishop of Fools or Fools’ Pope and carry on outrageously, making fun of sacred ceremonies and revelling in a hierarchy turned upside down. However, what began as an exercise in social relaxation eventually turned into burlesque and excess. Church leaders complained in 1445 that

Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gesture and verses scurrilous and unchaste.

Such behaviour was legislated against by king and church but proved very hard to eradicate — records of the Feast of the Fools endured into the eighteenth century.