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Unique Festivals

Unique Festivals… celebrations


There are many great national and local holidays and celebrations throughout the country. Every one if the 54,000 parish churches and the 800 monasteries of the Orthodox Tewahido Church all have at least one major annual festival.  These may share origin with Christian, Muslim and tribal festival elsewhere in the world, but have unique indigenous characteristics in Ethiopia.  If you can, try to plan your trip around one of the following spectacular festival.


Meskal is second in importance only to Timket and has been celebrated in the country for over 1,600 years. The word actually means ‘cross’ and the feast commemorates the discovery of the cross - upon which Jesus was crucified - by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Grate. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but the feast is now celebrated on 27 September. It also signifies the physical presence of the True Cross at the remote mountain monastery of Gishen Mariam located in the Welo region. During this time of year, vast bonfires are lit countrywide, the night before the celebration, and on the day itself there are dances and feasting for everyone. This festival also coincides with the mass blooming of the golden yellow ‘meskal daisies’, called adey abeba in Amharic. People of all ages are seen in the streets carrying fresh bunches of yellow flowers.

Enkutatsh, New Year

The Ethiopia New Year falls in September at the long rains. The sun comes out shine all day long crating and atmosphere of dazzling clarity and fresh clean air. The highland turns to hold the Meskal daisies burst out in all their splendour. Ethiopian children – clad in brand-new clothes - dance through the villages giving bouquets of flowers and painted pictures to each household.

Eleventh September is both New Year’s Day and the Fest of St. John the Baptist. The day is called Enkutatash meaning the ‘gift of jewels’. When the famous Wueen of sheba returned from her expensive jaunt to visit king Solomon 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 rains come to their abrupt end, dancing and singing can be heard at every village in green countryside. After dark on New Year’s Eve people light fire outside their houses. This year will be a special one as Ethiopia crosses over into a new millennium.

The main religious celebration takes place at the 14th – century Kostete Yohannes church in the city of Gaynt within the Gondar region.


Timket is the greatest festival of the year, falling on 19 January, just two weeks after the Ethiopian Christmas. It is actually a three-day affair, beginning on the eve of Timket with dramatic and colorful processions. The following morning, the great day itself, Christ’s baptism In the Jordan River by John the Baptist is commemorated. The third day is devoted to the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, one of Ethiopia’s most popular saints. Since October and the end of the rains, the country dries up steadily. The sun blaze down from a clear blue sky and the festival of Timket always takes place in glorious weather.

Enormous effort is put into the occasion. Tej and tella (Ethiopian meat and beer) are brewed, special bread is baked, and the fat-tailed African sheep are fattened for slaughter. Gifts are prepared for the children and new clothes purchase, old clothes mended and laundered. Everyone – men, women, and children - appears resplendent for three-day celebration. Dressed in dazzling white traditional dress, the locals provide a dramatic contrast of the jewel colors of the ceremonial velvets and stains of the priest’s robe and sequined velvet umbrellas. On the eve of 18 January, the priests remove the tabots from each church and bless the water of the pool or river where the next day’s celebration will take place. It is the tabot (symbolizing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments) rather than the church building which is consecrated, and it is accorded extreme reverenced. Not to be desecrated by the gaze of the layman, the engraved widen or stone slab scarred under layers of rich cloth.

In Addis Ababa, many churches bring their tabots to Jan Meda (the horse racing course of imperial days) accompanied by priests bearing prayer sticks and sistra, the ringing of bells and blowing of trumpets and swimming bronze censers from which wisps of incense smoke escape into the evening air. The tabots rest in their special tents in the meadow, each hoisting a proud banner depicting the church’s saint in front.

Genna, Christmas

Genna or Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated two weeks after the European Christmas or January 7.  It is celebrated country wide in a colorful way particularly in Lalibela.

Kulubi Gabriel

Twice a year, at about the end of December and July, this rather remarkable church in the hills near the city of Dire Dawa becomes the center of a thriving tent city of 50-60,000 people overnight. They come from all four corners of the country and from far and near to make vows and to have their prayers answered by the Archangel St. Gabriel. Others come just for the fun of it. For several days running, the 68km road from the city of Dire Dawa to church becomes a stream of all kinds of people on foot and in vehicle. 

Sheik Hussein

This is similar in many ways to Kulubi, but even more extraordinary with its dramatic setting in the remote southeast corner of Bale at the edge of the Wabe Shebelle River Gorge.  As usual with Muslim holidays, dates for the celebrations are not on a fixed date, but take place twice a year around March/April and August/September.

Cattle jumping and Donga

Of the many fascinating rituals, ceremonies and celebrations of the many tribal groups of the Omo in southwest Ethiopia is Cattle Jumping.  This is a rite of passage ceremony in which female relatives of a young man are flogged to bleeding as a show of their affection.  This then qualifies the initiate for marriage and a fierce stick fight known as donga followed by the hand of the most beautiful maiden is the prize. These ceremonies have no fixed venues and times as such. They take place all over the Hammer and Surma lands, and depending on the rain, in February-March/April.

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