The Eritrean people are highly inclined and are very fond of social gatherings of any kind which bring people together. I say this not because I am an Eritrean, but I know for a fact that they really look for occasions to be together, work together, celebrate, laugh, cry and face hardships together.
The people’s aptitude to set schedules and create events whereby young and old come together, is just beyond belief. That is maybe why every cultural or agricultural undertaking is traditionally bound to have a rite for accompaniment. When, at present days, we vigorously see or experience the notion of what I choose to call ‘Eritrean togetherness’ it’s actually nothing new, it has been there for hundreds of years.
Very recently, the inhabitants of Asmara celebrated the veneration of Saint Mary, Saint Michael, in addition to the celebration of the rest of the saints over the course of a year and how essentially their veneration is related to the notion and essence of coming together.
The Orthodox religion has been around for long, it has apportioned its branches to several cultural activities emulating established traits. The veneration of saints could be a major example. Conventionally, the Tewahdo Orthodox Church in Eritrea has a calendar whereby days of a month are subdivided in working days and holidays: the holidays are each reserved for saints accordingly. Of course it would be impractical to celebrate every saint’s ‘holyday’ nationwide, but it is very practical and standard to observe their yearly anniversary at neighborhood or village level.
The technical approach to this celebration is beautiful. It works as follows: every neighborhood, every village and town has a church acclaimed to a specific saint, hence, the churches are somehow also emblems of neighborhoods and villages. Commonly, if one asks you about your neighborhood and you mention the name of the saint given to your neighborhood’s church, then, there is no need for you to give out the street number of your address, it is actually easier that way, and much comfortable for older people who prefer to memorize the names of saints rather than street names or numbers!
People also use churches as referral points when giving out directions or even for meeting locations. And when it is actually time for the yearly anniversary of a saint, then the neighborhood, which houses the church, claimed after a certain saint, has the duty of observing the festivity. In Tigrigna, such festivities are called Nigdet.
Last week, on the 21st of November, the Saint Michael Nigdet was observed, while the 30th of November was the day of Saint Mary, two of the most venerated saints nationwide. In Asmara, the biggest church is the Saint Mary Church followed by that of Saint Michael. The neighborhoods of Asmara and towns around the country, which celebrate these days are multiple in number.
An ordinary Nigdet day would start by an early morning coffee ceremony at household level aimed at giving thanks to a saint, this is a must, even if it’s not your neighborhood’s Nigdet. The elders go to church as early as possible while youngsters are obliged to set out a candle light coffee ceremony in the kitchen added by a delightful breakfast. It all happens so early, that all of this, is executed before 8 o’clock: time for work or school. While if your neighborhood is hosting the Nigdet then the day starts even earlier. Families spend days in preparing food and drinks for pilgrims.
Once again and beautifully as ever, this is not a practice reserved only to Orthodox followers or Christians at large; similarly to all customs and habits in Eritrea, there is no discrimination. Muslim families and friends might not venerate Christian saints but certainly celebrate equally at a family member’s, friends’ or neighbor’s house. Our mothers help each other in cooking the food, our fathers shop together and, we, youngsters will do very well lusciously munch for lunch and dinner together!
A neighborhood, village or town hosting Nigdet would normally get extremely crowded. Nigdets are national events of the people that see increased traveling circulations from a neighbor to another, a village to a village, town to town and city to another. Churches start mass prayer at midnight and with the high flow of faithful the covenant is put in the church’s yard, or outside sometimes –by the way, it is a sight not to miss, the spiritual rites devoted to the saint I mean, so beautiful and so colorful. Shops are the busiest as well as local businesses. Consequently, public service is in the same way provided to ease the swarming flow of people moving around; more public transportation services and security patrols are put in place.
Lunch time is the most hectic episode of the day, friends and family from all walks of life gather for lunch, shame on you if you close the door!
So what happens is that when it’s actually a neighborhood’s Nigdet; families leave the doors to their houses open for family, friends and strangers to stop by for a meal. And as the doors are open, one is just welcome to go in and enjoy the delicacies prepared by the hosting family. The meal is free, drinks and coffee too, it’s all gratis!
The pilgrims do their best to schedule their free time accordingly, one can’t just leave any family or friend’s house out. So we go systematically to avoid a nutrition overdose; mental framework for the schedule for a Nigdet day goes like: “Auntie X cooks meat medium rare so my first step is her house, my uncle’s wife Y has the best seasoning of veggies so definitely going there for second plate, my friend’s mom Z possesses magical desserts coming out of her oven so for sure I’ll set my sweet tooth at my friend’s… oh and can’t dare to leave out my teacher’s ginger-licious coffee!”
That’s how it goes, really.
Nigdets are not only about food though, they have physiological impacts that overpass the superficial gathering we perceive at eye sight. They are actually some sort of health therapy structures of the Eritrean community. Doesn’t the principle of health incorporate social, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing? I think so… therefore, I believe that Nigdets are healthy practices.
How so? Well, first of all, for the sake of Nigdets people gather from all corners of the country, some sort of cross towns and cross cities excursions no matter the distance. A great reason to travel and explore new places, definitely a cross cultural integration.
Going to families’ and friends’ house to ask about how they’re doing and simply offer willingness and readiness to be at their assistance at any time, while renewing that pact of family hood without having to read vows out loud, and you know, just the assertion of being there for one another.
The physical healing comes in smiling the whole day welcoming people, but let’s lubricate the word people, to brothers and sisters, because that is how it actually feels. And one more adorable thing about Nigdet, is that it never comes as a burden to the hosting family in terms of energy, for the reason that the children’s’ cousins and friends have the deliberate duty of spending a couple of nights to actually help with cooking, cleaning and the endless domestic works.
Marvelously, it is also an emotional and mental rectifying occasions as people come together, children make new friends and cousins that they’d only would hear of year long. Also, families feel some sort of tranquility in sending a helping hand when they deliver food and beverage to the church in the morning. After the churches’ celebrations are over and the covenant is put back to its place, the clergy takes on the mission of distributing food to the less fortunate.
And how is Nigdet spiritually befitting? Well, there is a great difference between praying alone and together, anyone that knows would not deny. After all, I believe that is exactly why people gather in mosques and churches: to feel solidarity in imploring love and peace for a communal wellbeing. Mass prayers during such occasions start at midnight and last until midday and past it at times.
And for such reasons and more, Nigdets, the veneration of saints and their cultural practices, uphold amazing values of unity, integrity, accord and harmony.
Years go by and generation pass as well, and new global conventions might conceal the traditional ones, but then again I guess, practices like these ones make globalization weak in penetrating and positioning as conventional. Seeing how Eritreans love to come together and will engineer just about anything to actually make it happen, it will definitely be a though wall to break through!