Don’t you just feel like waxing lyrical about the holiday season? I got to tell ya, I do.
Season’s greetings, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone, or is it Happy New year and Merry Christmas, perhaps it is Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Merry Christmas again! The reason I seem to be going on a psychobabble is the Eritrean society celebrates two Christmases in a space of just 14 days.
Whaaaa, two Christmas’s? How is that possible? Does that mean two gifts’? That is not fair! Can we move to Eritrea for Christmas? Questions kids in the west would probably have for their parents.
By the way it never feels like Christmas without telling a little incident I once had with an old man. It goes like this…..
A few years back, a couple days after celebrating Christmas, as I made my way to the office, I said hello to the security guard-who is quite old, and asked him how Christmas was and the old man looked at me perplexed and said
“Christmas is in two weeks!”,
“Yes I know, but did you celebrate the Ferengi Christmas”
The man furiously replied, “Those damned Fascist were at our throat for half a century?” referring to the Italians and the British.
“In no way possible am I celebrating “THEIR” Christmas!”
“Fair point, well made sir!”
Eritrea is among the first countries which embraced the great world religions, Christianity and Islam.
It is even said that there were Jewish communities in Eritrea long before Christianity was introduced and that is the reason why the Eritrean Orthodox church has many Judaic aspects like keeping the Sabbath, harboring copies of the Arc of the Covenant (Tabot) and pork prohibition.
Both religions have influenced almost all aspects of life in Eritrea as in the rest of the world. They are binding forces of the society and have great roles in civilization. Education, literature, architecture, legislature and administration in Eritrea are strongly influenced by them. But, Christmas, which is celebrated on the 7th of January, is second t o Easter, the most highly revered Christian holiday in Eritrea.
January is a very important month in Eritrea: Orthodox Christians in Eritrea begin the month of December with a 40- day fasting and all-vegetable diet that continues until January 7, when Christmas is celebrated with feasting and a lengthy church service.
The hassle to get ready typically starts several days before Christmas; there is much activity in the city markets, people buying and selling things for the feast.
Especially a day or two ahead of Christmas the streets are crowded with people who want to buy animals such as sheep, goat, cow or hen. The market is buzzing with people chatting and doing last-minute grocery shopping for the holidays.
People usually check an animal before buying it to ensure it provides enough meat. There is no fixed price for the animals; hence, both buyers and sellers negotiate until they reach what they think is a fair price. Making a deal is a long and funny process.
Another way of acquiring food is that a group of people buy a cow or an ox, slaughter it and share the flesh, referred to as (Guzzi). This is an old tradition in Eritrea that shows the cohesion or cooperative nature of the society against individualism.
It may not be affordable or is a tedious job for one family to buy a whole cow. Hence, the feasible way is to form a group, buy a cow and share it so that everybody can happily celebrate Christmas.
On the eve of Christmas 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 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.
For small children in the country side slaughtering an animal is like losing an animal they knew like a family member or a friend. Therefore it is an unhappy event even though it is a special occasion that had to be celebrated. For children living in the city it is exciting to see their parents bringing along a pet on the eve of Christmas and just like a normal pet it is quite touching to see a little kid p l a y i n g w i t h t h e animal and asking his parents for permission to take it outside for a while and feed it. The very next day though when they see the animal slaughtered they tend to be not very amused. As the friendship only lasted one day their sorrow is not as deep as that of village children.
There is one exception, if a family happens to have guests from overseas. Diaspora children enjoy eating meat and meat products purchased in the supermarket almost every day and have little or no contact with live animals. Such children are extremely shocked to see animals slaughtered. They protest and try to stop the “brutal” event. Some refuse even to eat from the meat and swear to remain vegetarian for the rest of their lives. The over reaction of Animal Rights!
Up comes the day and at Christmas morning people go to church Eritrean men dressed in traditional outfits sit on one side of the aisle, while the women, in traditional white Zuria dresses and head pieces that cover up their hair, are seated on the other. At the front, you’ll see the priest in his gold robe —he has five helpers with white veils wrapped around their shoulders, and celebrate the Divine Liturgy, listening to readings of the Bible verses in the old Geez language and Jared choir songs (Qdassie) sung by the priests accompanied with rhythmic drum beats and cymbals in the Orthodox and Geez Catholic churches.
After the church service is over and everybody is back in their homes, the men are given a glass of the home brewed beer and entertain guests while the mother and daughters roam around the house doing the final preparations of the food and drinks. On the other hand the kids are told to sit tight and not dirty their new clothes, which is naturally a frustrating thing for kids as all they want to do is go outside and play with their friends: nonetheless this whole combination spreads a special smell in the air which creates a festive atmosphere. Then the tasty meal is set on the table. Prayer is said by a father, the eldest or a senior member of the family and then everyone can spread thier fingers and enjoy eating the delicious zgni with injera. One might overeat on this day even in poor families because as a rule there is abundant delicate food on the table.
Should there be a poor family in a village which cannot afford to slaughter even a hen, then the ones who are blessed with abundance see it as their obligation even as an opportunity to get God’s blessing to help such a family. Coffee with Popcorn or Himbasha, homemade Eritrean bread, is served after eating the meal.
It is not unusual to observe on the eve of Christmas people lining up before shops to buy Panettone and then carry it home in flocks. Being affordable almost for everybody, it seems, at least in the cities, that it is winning favor over the traditional bread, Himbasha, on Christmas day.
In the afternoon and evening, adult males stroll through the city streets to meet friends or take fresh air or a little constitution to help them digest the heavy meal. Many of them attired in their white Habesha costume, a long loosely worn shirt (Shifon) and fine cotton shall (Netzela) over strangely tailored trousers, which one might think were made for horse riders (Gtr). Their final destination is a coffee house, Swa local or Myes local where they sip a beer, Swa, Myies (a liquor made from fermented honey) cappuccino or whatever they enjoy drinking.
Children usually get new clothes or shoes on Christmas, basically the equivalent of receiving gifts on December 25th. After enjoying their lunch they might play outside with other children, boasting how fine their new clothes or shoes are, while the older ones are off to town to meet with their friends or significant other and go to pubs, the cinema or have a night out.
On the other hand, members of modern Evangelical churches and Catholics are more or less oriented to their mother churches in the west. They celebrate Christmas with decorated Christmas trees, candles, candies and Panettone, a delicious Italian cake. Their members exchange gifts as it is a tradition in the west.
Celebrating Christmas with a Christmas tree and sharing gifts has become popular and widespread even among the Orthodox Christians of Eritrea. People put Christmas trees as soon as it is December and it is not just family households that erect Christmas trees on this jolly season. Major coffee parlors around Asmara are decorated with eye catching Christmas trees and lights. Christmas lights are everywhere- in the streets, adorning windows, on balconies and covering gardens. In Asmara, an enchanting atmosphere envelops the city and everywhere seems to glow with warmth. Such is the case that it has become a tradition over the last couple of years to take your kids or little siblings to town to enjoy the sparkling lights or perhaps take a picture with Santa Clause.
At the end of it all, I believe we are quite lucky to have two Christmas dates to celebrate. For the kids it is a joy to receive gifts and take a day off from school and for our society in general it cements our ability to harmoniously acknowledge and share both Christmas’s equally. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Merry Christmas again, everyone!