Christmas in Ethiopia is called Ganna (or Genna) and is celebrated on January 7th. An important Ethiopian holiday, visitors in the country can get an insight into the religious traditions and culture of the African nation.
Ganna comes 12 days before the Timkat festival, another important holiday. Travelers with an Ethiopian eVisa can spend up to 90 days in Ethiopia and are therefore able to enjoy both events on one trip.
The information below explains how Christmas is marked in Ethiopia and the best places to spend the holiday as a tourist.
Why do Ethiopians Celebrate Christmas on January 7th?
Like many Orthodox churches around the world, Christmas is on January 7th in Ethiopia. As the months of the Ethiopian calendar are different, Ganna is on the 29th day of the month of Tahsas.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers January 7th to be the day of Jesus’ birth and is therefore the day for major religious activity in Ethiopia.
Fortunately for travelers, January is one of the best months to visit Ethiopia as the weather is warm and there is little rainfall.
Ethiopian Christmas 2021
Ganna falls on Thursday 7th January in 2021. Visitors hoping to travel to Ethiopia for the festivity in January 2021 should apply for an Ethiopian eVisa at least 72 hours before departure.
How Do They Celebrate Christmas in Ethiopia?
Ganna is a strictly religious occasion with its own unique traditions. The giving of gifts is not central to the Ethiopian Christmas tradition, rather the focus is on ritual and ceremony.
The main ceremonial activities take place in and around Ethiopian Orthodox churches, with locals taking part in processions and special services. Some of the most important features of Ganna are explained below.
Ethiopians fast for 43 days before Christmas
Many Ethiopians carry out a 43-day fast in the lead up to Christmas day. The fast begins on November 25th, a day known as Tsome Nebiyat (Fast of the Prophets), and is held through to January 7th.
Ethiopians eat just one meal a day for 43 days, the meals should be free from meat, dairy, and eggs which are all avoided during periods of fasting.
Ethiopians dress in white of Christmas day
Visitors in Ethiopia for Ganna should expect to see the locals dressed completely in white on Christmas day.
Many people wear a traditional item of clothing called a Netela. Worn in a similar way to a shawl, the Netela is a white cotton garment with woven colored borders.
As Ethiopia’s traditional dress, the Netela is worn on a number of other public holidays and festive occasions.
Ethiopians attend church on Christmas Eve
As Ganna is a very religious occasion on the Ethiopian calendar, Orthodox Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve (January 6th), known in Ethiopia as the gahad of Christmas.
The church service typically begins at around 6 pm and continues through to the early hours of Christmas day. Chanting and singing are central to the services, many people go from church to church on foot to take part in various services before the break of dawn.
A game called genna is played at Ethiopian Christmas
One Ethiopian legend claims that the shepherds of the Christmas story heard about the birth of Jesus, they celebrated the news with a spontaneous game using their wooden staffs that resembled hockey.
For this reason, on Christmas day mainly boys and young men play a game similar to hockey with a curved wooden stick and ball. The game is called Yágenna Chewata, or genna for short.
Ethiopian Christmas Food
One similarity between Christmas in Ethiopia and in other areas of the world is the importance of food.
The 43-day fast is broken at daybreak on January 7th with a light meal. Later in the day a Doro Wat, a spicy stew containing meat and vegetables, and sometimes topped with an egg is eaten. Injera, Ethiopian flatbreads, are used to scoop up and eat the stew.
The same dish is eaten during Ethiopia’s Timkat festival, another important date on the Ethiopian calendar.
The meal is accompanied by tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
Where to Celebrate Ganna in Ethiopia
Ganna is celebrated throughout Ethiopia so travelers can experience the holiday wherever they are staying.
Tourists who wish to see the most important Christmas ceremonies in Ethiopia should go to the holy city of Lalibela. Lalibela is a town in the north of the country known for its churches cut into the rock and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At Christmas time the population of Lalibela almost doubles as thousands of pilgrims descend on the town and gather in the hills around the rock-hewn churches.
Visitors hoping to stay in or around Lalibela at this time are recommended to book accommodation well in advance.
The Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is another good place to spend Ethiopian Christmas.