We call it Kudus Yohanns (St. John, the beloved disciple of Christ). According to the traditional or Ge’ez New Year, we are now in 2009!
For Eritrean children, Kudus Yohanns is a par excellence. New Year means new clothes and lots of meat to boot. And nobody cares about the calendar.
New Year resolution doesn’t exist in our culture. Here, people simply ask God to bless the New Year for plenty of food and for peace.
The New Year in the Geez calendar, commonly known in Eritrea as St. John, is celebrated on the 11th day of the month of September. Although the Geez New Year is a religious holiday, it is also a day to celebrate the coming of spring as it also marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of a whole new season to collect the harvest.
Traditionally, the elderly people know Saint John’s day as the Ge’ez New year. How come? You ask! Well, Eritreans, officially use the Gregorian calendar while the elderly mostly resort to the Julian calendar mainly for the purpose of keeping track of traditional and religious holidays.
The celebration of this New Year dates back decades to the early settlers. Reasons for celebrating this new beginning in September is said to be of biblical proportions: in the Old Testament, it is believed that after the great floods, the new season begun in the month of September.
What makes kudus Yohanns interesting to children though, apart from clothes and the slaughter of a sheep or chicken, is the torch-burning event conducted on the eve of the holiday known as Hoye-Hoye.
Traditionally, a fire is lit at sunset on the eve of St. John’s Day. The firewood is collected for days beforehand, and prayers and blessings are said as the fire is lit. There are also other traditions associated with the fire, including walking around the fire three times and throwing a pebble into the center of the fire with a special prayer, and also jumping over the embers of the fire as it died to get new endeavors off to a good start or to rid themselves of their own weaknesses and inadequacies.
When I was a kid, we used to light dried Kolkal (cactus) or a shig (bundle of dried twigs) and go around asking for “treat or trick” just the way they do it at Halloween in America.
You go door to door shouting hoye-hoye and reciting old chants whose origin are shrouded in mystery.
Belay o Belay, Ho in the middle of the lake,
Ho, Planting Javelin, Ho
Ready to fight, Ho
The family that opened its door to welcome the night hollers would shell out a couple of Nakfa which made us very happy.
“Come on, step across the burning torch,” we would exhort the merry gentlemen. And they would step across the flaming and smoking kolkal three times forward and three times backward and would give us their blessings. But we valued their financial contribution more than their hollow blessing.
“It is not the same in the village,” objects my aunt.
She told me that in the village the “treat or trick” part is absent. There, hoye hoye has more of a spiritual and superstitious nature.
On the eve of Kuddus Yohanns, the villagers light their shig and circumambulate the village with the village church as the focal point. Then they all go to the open ground or baito in the village and build a bonfire invoking God to forgive them their sins and bless them with good harvest and a time of peace.
And after reciting the Abuna Zebenesemayat (the prayer) in unison, they disperse and go home. The stepping across a burning kolkal by the family is an event conducted by the members of the family and not again for money, as is done in the big Eritrean towns like Asmara.
In the village, a neighbor’s kid arrives with a burning torch early in the morning, gets inside your home and recites the Akohkay (A bad spirit repellent invocation).
May the cooking pot for wild herb vanish.
And be replaced by a pot of buttered porridge.
Once every house is disinfected with similar recitation, you are guaranteed a year of plenty and prosperity. And the social part of the New Year celebration begins with the slaughtering of a livestock.
Meanwhile, the women and young ladies during the last week of the year gather in big groups and go down the river nearby, cheerfully singing traditional melodies and dance to it as they spend a fun time playing with the water. It’s definitely the time of the year in which the women in-between families and neighbors strengthen their bonds. This week is known as “Pagumen”: unlike the western one in the geez calendar we have 12 months of 30 days each, so at the end of the year the remaining days are traditionally gathered up to make up a week of Pagumen, right before the holy day of St John.
Rigat on the other hand is a waitress in a snack bar in Asmara. She has been in the profession almost for a year. By this time she must have saved enough to go back to her home village to see her beloved parents carrying all sorts of gifts. After all, it is the New Year; and the family deserves all the respect and love any God fearing child feels appropriate to do in this special day.
So, Rigat gets ready to make this pilgrimage and buys sugar for the family, coffee for the addicted mother, a bottle of Areki for Daddy(they say it is good against malaria), Omo for dirty…., pair of shoe for Senait, exercise books for Haile and Michael who are both in Grade two, and some candles for the neighbor kids.
Did she remember Addey Gu’esh? That old decrepit of an aunt who refused to help the family in its hours of need! Well, just to please the Almighty. A kilo of Sugar.
But Rigat’s pilgrimage has some ulterior motives. The gold ring and necklace she bought out of her savings and which she is now wearing, plus the blue jeans, the green t-shirt and converse shoes are meant to make a statement. Here I come, my village. As for my old friends, just eat your hearts out wherever you are.
Rigat has been all her life humiliated by her village classmates. She is from a poor family. Now is the time to silence the evil whispering. She has made it!
So every Ge’ez New Year is a day of reckoning as far as Rigat and her past troubled life is concerned.
At the other end of Asmara also lives Addey Gu’ey, a lone wolf in her declining years. She hates small kids and is not slow at lashing out at any Array kids who dare to enter her house uninvited.
The neighborhood children are hesitant whether to visit her house or not for the traditional hoye-hoye performance.
“Do you think she will welcome us?” asks one of the kids.
“But she has a bad temper especially when she sees kids,” warns another kid.
“I know last year, after all the songs we and and the kolkal we burned, she gave us only five Nafka and told us to scram.”
“Doesn’t hurt to try anyway…”
So they all go to Addey Gu’ey’s house and with their kolkal burning hot, they start to sing.
Addey Gu’ey, Our Old Mother
Please come out with an open hand
To reward your beloved children
Addey Gu’ey comes out from the dark room where she usually stays hidden from curious eyes. She calls the kids to step forward and stretches an open hand.
The kids see something shimmering in her creased palm.
One of the kids with a fearless heart goes nearer and grabs the Nakfa. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
This is Fifty Nakfa.
“Ruhus Beal Kudus Yohanns Addey Gu’ey!”
“Go away! I don’t want to be disturbed!”
“Happy St.John’s day just the same!” shout back the kids and go back home very happy.
On the other hand, on the eve of Saint John’s day, fathers slaughter a sheep, a goat or at least a hen. Most people prefer a sheep to a goat but some argue a goat is much cheaper and has much more meat. Mothers or daughters take the last steps of brewing Swa, homemade beer; bake Injera, thin flat spongy sour bread preferably made of Taff flour and cook Zgni, a hot meat stew. Green straw (Setti) is spread on the floor and maybe a soothing incense smoke fills the room. The whole event is very exciting and every family member contributes at some point during the whole process.