After 55 days of abstaining from siga (Meat) and dairy products, the hassle to get ready typically starts several days before Easter. There is much activity in the city markets, people buying and selling things for the feast.
Especially a day or two ahead of Easter 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 purchasing 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.
“Tell me frankly, young man. Did you really bring your sheep to town to sell them?”
“Well, what else do you think I brought them here for? To show them the Liberty Avenue?”
Another way of acquiring food is that there is a special Eritrean custom, a group of people buy a cow or an ox, slaughter it and share the flesh, referred to as Guzzi. This is a long 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 and carry a whole cow. Hence, the feasible way is to form a group, buy a cow and share it so that everybody can happily celebrate Easter.
Up comes the day before Easter and the faithful prostrate themselves in church, bowing down and rising up until they get tired. The main religious service takes place with the Paschal Vigil on Saturday night. It is a somber, sacred occasion with music and dancing until the early hours of the morning. At 3:00 a.m. everyone returns home to break their fast.
In the early morning of Easter 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 bring along a pet on the eve of Easter and just like a normal pet it is quite touching to see a little kid playing with the animal and asking his parents for permission if they can 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. However, as the friendship only lasted one day their sorrow is not as deep as that of village children.
But unbeknownst to many of those who fast, animals such as cats and dogs have also been indirectly fasting in spite of themselves. Some domestic animals do greatly suffer during the fasting season. Victims of collateral damage!
After the sheep is slaughtered, men are given a glass of the home brewed beer and entertain guests while the mother and daughters are roaming 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. 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 their 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 see a day before Easter 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 holidays.
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 to drink. For some while Easter declares open season on sheep and all things dairy, to others it is time to get back to drinking to half-seas over.
Happy Easter Everyone!