On Wednesday we celebrated Kidus Yohannes, aka Geez New Year. Happy Holiday!
God knows how many of you have been dumbfounded as to why we get to celebrate two New Years: one in September and another with the rest of the world in January. I know I have!
Over the years I have come across many foreigners who demanded an explanation. The common explanation goes that Eritreans, who officially stuck to the Gregorian calendar (GC), also resorted (usually the elders) to the Julian calendar for traditional and religious holidays and that because of the latter the year begun in the month of September.
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, of 5 days and 6 days in leap years (like the present year).
Coming at the end of the rainy season, Pagumien is a Greek word meaning addition, rightly referring to the fact that Eritrean tradition dictates that bathing your bodies during the five 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 sin committed during the past year and ensuring a healthy journey throughout the coming year. Back in the old days, everyone, except for the ill and aged, bath their bodies.
Particularly in the Eritrean highlands, women wake up early in the dawn hours to bathe in the village ponds and rivers. 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 maye…”
Rough translation of the song is: “Mother, please put the light on so that I go to fetch water.”
This is an allusion to St. Mary, inferring that the young women are asking her to help them wash themselves of their sins.
And why is it commonly known as Kudus Yohannes? In honor of John the Baptist.
Reasons for celebrating this new beginning in September is said to have biblical implications: in the Old Testament, it is believed that the new season, after the great floods, begin with the month of September.
Similarly in the Eritrean context, especially in the rural areas, September is also the beginning of a sunny weather in which crops are gathered and harvested, after toiling all summer. It’s also during this month that flowers blossom after heavy rains. Therefore, this new beginning is jovially celebrated. During such time, most of the pastoralists that had left with their livestock return home at the beginning of this month.
In the old times, it was the time when young boys acknowledged their adulthood because being chosen to leave for the meadows proves a boy’s maturity; that also gave the young men the opportunity to look for a bride and the women to display their beauty.
The days leading up to the big event, young girls go out to the streets singing laudatory songs to passerby 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” , announcing the beginning of the new year.
Growing as a child I remember looking forward to our relatives who would come from the village – honestly what we wanted most were the torches they would bring us. And then on the eve, we would get restless until it got dark so we could light our torches and run along the street. Tradition has it that you lay the burning torch on the ground and ask 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 of the New Year:
kurae hamli wtsa’e
Geat tesmi eto…”
The wish, in simple words, would sound something like:
“Begone, dishes of vegetable
Welcome porridge of butter…”
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. My grandmother would then sing traditional New Year folksongs. That was a lot of fun!
Such traditions make up an important part of the rich Eritrean cultural heritage. Even today, as I listen to the songs on the radio or television, my mind goes back to those smoke-filled evenings that we, as children, would eagerly await.
While it’s not customary to exchange greeting cards during this holiday, nowadays, owing to globalization, well wishing text messages are common among the urban sophisticated.
The Geez New Year is generally considered as a fresh beginning and remains to this date the most important of the Eritrean traditional holidays.