“pagume” the 13th month of the geez calendar

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Pagume is the name given to the 13th month in the Geez calendar.

According to the Geez calendar, a year is divided into 12 months of 30 days with the remaining five or six days making up the 13th month. Pagume comes after August just before the Geez New Year which falls on September 11 or 12.

The most known and commonly used calendar in the world is the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. The difference between Geez and Gregorian calendars resulted from the approaches adopted in determining the date of the annunciation of Jesus. Geez calendar was proposed by the 318 Coptic popes of Alexandria.

To indicate the year followers of the Eritrean churches today use the incarnation era, which dates from the annunciation of Jesus on march 25,AD 9, As calculated by Annianus of Alexandria 400 AD; thus its first civil year began 7 months earlier on august 29,AD 8. Meanwhile Europeans eventually adopted the calculations made by Dionysius Exiguous in AD 525 instead, which placed the annunciation 8 years earlier than had Annianus. This causes the Geez calendar number to be 8 years less than the Gregorian year number from January 1 until September 10 or 11,then 7 years less for the remainder of the Gregorian year.

Geez language is extensively used in Eritrea for religious reasons and the Orthodox Church of Eritrea uses the Geez calendar. Every year is dedicated to one of the four apostles of the bible in succession: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. In the first three years the 13th month (Pagume) has five days. A 6th epagomenal day is added every fourth year without exception. The term Pagume is also derived from the Geez words.

During the Pagume week, people have a bath in cold water which is referred to as Mai PAGUME in Tigrigna; mai means water. This ritual is performed to purify one’s body from evil deeds at the end of the year. The ritual is particularly common among girls who sing in unison after they have a bath. In most rural areas people go to the lakes while city dwellers go to nearby churches and wash using the holy water there.

A n o t h e r event that takes place during Pagume is the lighting of group of sticks called “HOYE” on the eve of the Geez New Year. The lighting of Hoye is an expression of a wish for a bright year. Pagume marks the end of the rainy season when farmers look forward to the harvest after the New Year.

Spiritually, Pagume is intended as a time of confession in the Orthodox Christian Church. People spend the days praying and hoping for the coming year to be great. Kidus Yohannes is the official name for the Geez New Year.

When it comes to the Geez New Year, people and especially foreigners, get confused about the notion of celebrating New Year in September. The fact remains while officially Eritrea follows the Gregorian calendar (GC); the elders usually stick to the Julian calendar for traditional and religious holidays. According to the Julian calendar, the year, which starts in September, is divided into 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month, known as Pagumien (a Greek word meaning addition) of 5 days and 6 days in leap years (like the present year). Coming at the end of the rainy season, Pagumen is rightly referring to the fact that Eritrean tradition dictates that bathing your bodies during the Epagomenal days in any water source is vital to keep one’s health throughout the coming year. It is considered as cleansing one’s soul from any sins committed the past year and ensuring a healthy journey throughout the coming year.

Back in the old days, everyone, except for the ill and aged, bathed their bodies. Particularly in the Eritrean highlands, women wake up early in the morning hours to bathe in the village ponds and rivers. The elders I consulted about the traditional significance of this norm say that it symbolizes the cleansing of the body and soul in time for the New Year. In old times, except the mobility impaired and very old people, everybody reportedly bathed each morning during the epagomenal days.

Melodious folksongs by the young women as they bathe or play in the meadows are abundant these days.

“Adeye abrehaley, kwerdo maye Adeye abrehaley, kwerdo m a y e … ” Roughly translated this goes as: “Mother, please put the light on for me to fetch water.” This is an allusion to St. Mary, inferring that the young women are asking St. Mary to allow them wash themselves of their sins. The Geez New Year, which is commonly known as Kudus Yohannes, in honor of John the Baptist, entails a range of other colorful activities. The days leading up to the big event, young girls go out in the streets with their little drums singing laudatory songs to passersby who in return give them some money. That’s probably fundraising at the traditional level. Particularly in the rural Eritrea, the girls, with the money collected, supposedly buy decorations to make themselves more beautiful for the New Year. At dusk on the eve of the day, the streets are filled with smoke (or its smell) from the burning torches, made of bundles of dry leaves and thick wood sticks that children carry around the neighborhood chanting “Hoye Hoye.” Tradition has it that you lay the burning torch on the ground and makes people cross it three times, wishing for blessed and prosperous returns of the day. Once they cross three times, people are supposed to give the children small tips. After we had made a round in our block and make as many people as we could find cross our torches we would make our way back home, where the family gathers in the compound. My grandmother, who loved to stick to tradition, would then pick one of the torches and go around every room and, shall we say fumigate them, reciting some verses that supposedly wish for prosperity with the coming the New Year:

“Akokay, akokay… kurae hamli wtsa’e Geat tesmi eto…”

The wish, in simple words, would sound something like: “Be gone, vegetable dish Welcome porridge of butter…” As silly as they may sound, the verses are simply good wishes of wealth and abundance for the New Year.

When she was done with touring all rooms in the house, we would all gather around a small bonfire made from what remains of the torches. Our grandmother would then sing traditional New Year folksongs. And boy, that was a lot of fun! Such traditions make up an important part of the rich Eritrean cultural heritage. The Geez New Year is generally considered as a fresh beginning and remains to this day the most important of the Eritrean traditional holidays.