In my past special Christmas edition articles I mentioned that Eritrea celebrated two Christmas events in a space of two weeks, the reason is, many Orthodox Christians annually celebrate Christmas Day on or near January 7 to remember Jesus Christ’s birth, described in the Christian Bible. This date works to the Julian calendar that pre-dates the Gregorian calendar, which is commonly observed.
In the past, traditional Christmas was celebrated just like any other religious holiday in Eritrea. And if you now go to the villages on Eritrean Christmas day you don’t see any difference in the manner of celebrating Christmas, Easter or even New Year.
Just to check I asked my very old aunt who has all her life lived in her home village:
“How do you celebrate Christmas in your village?”
“Those who have money slaughter a sheep or a goat, those who are poor, kill a chicken.”
“How about those less fortunate? I ventured.
“They go hungry or wait for some bleeding hearts to send them some food.”
The old lady told me that Easter was more important than Christmas because “that’s when our savior rose from the dead!” for all she cared Christmas was just a feast like the rest. The priests get up at midnight and conduct mass and the villagers, mostly women, spend the night there, praying.
“Is that all? I asked.
“What else do you expect,” she said.
“Do people fast before Christmas?”
“Of course they do, it is called Tsome Tahsas (the fast of December)” she replied.
It is astonishing to note the number of days our Christian population fast during the year.
“Okay, what do they preach in the church?” I asked going back to the previous topic.
The old lady told me that most of the mass is conducted in Ge’ez, our Latin, and it is meant to sooth the soul. But from time to time they preach in Tigrigna and tell the congregation to love one another and follow the straight path to salvation. But on Christmas night they narrate a special version of the nativity.
According to the old lady(probably she must have mixed various biblical stories), Jesus was born in the wilderness among the grazing cattle and when the enemy came to kill him Our Lady carried him on her back and disappeared.
“Where did they go?” I interrupted.
First she vanished from their sight. Then she wandered all over the world for seven years. When she reached Mount Sinai, Gabriel the Announcer and Michael the Archangel met her and accompanied her to her house keeping her safe from the bloodthirsty Jews (the Jews had nothing to do with this as a people in fact they lost their children as a result of the wild hunt). O how many children were killed by the enemy just to get at Jesus! She sighed.
Although not all together authentic, I like her story just the same, because it was told with love and innocence. If I were to tell her the true story she would have liked it.
“How about Christmas trees? I continued.
“We know nothing about Christmas trees,” she replied.
And then she went on to say that as regards using plants for decoration, the villagers covered the floor of their houses with setti(bulrushes). The first Christmas trees she saw was in Asmara and it didn’t impress her one bit.
I think Christmas trees arrived with the Italians and foreign missionaries who accompanied them. The Swede who brought Protestantism (in its European version) to Eritrea must have contributed a lot to the popularity of pine trees here, and then they miraculously found Eritrea version of pine trees near Beleza and Adi Nifas. This was an answer to a long prayer and Christmas tress was her to stay. However I still find it strange why the Swedish missionaries didn’t introduce Santa Clause to their humble congregation. The laughing old man from the North Pole rarely appears in Eritrean Christmas.
I remember my Dad telling me some Eritreans using Eucalyptus trees for Christmas. It looked very ugly he said. But if you wanted a real one, the only way of getting them was to go on a nightmare looting safari to Bet Ghiorgis, a city park on the outskirt of Asmara. But the problem was that the park was heavily guarded by forest wardens who, if they caught you red handed, beat the daylight out of you unmoved either by Christmas spirit or Christian piety.
And what’s more they had no means to associate the birth of Jesus with mundane tree growing in a park designed by Europeans.