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Eritrea’s Christmas: Twin Holidays

It is December, guys, our favorite month! Oh wait, is it your favorite too? Well, I like December because it is a month characterized by cold weather and… HOLIDAYS! There is Christmas, New Year and, for Eritreans, another Christmas.

People start decorating their houses and Christmas trees early this month. It is the brightest of all seasons, only next to the Independence Day in Eritrea. Farmers have just finished their harvest and their silo is full of grains and animal food, perfect season to celebrate.

This year, all the shops have set their Christmas trees with more decorations and designs than ever. In the cafes and restaurants, crowded with people trying to warm themselves by drinking macchiato or cappuccino, the Christmas lights give the customers a bright look. People have a Christmas tree set in their homes to welcome the holiday with a bright spirit. Decorating the Christmas tree as a family has come to be a norm in modern Eritrea. Children eagerly wait for the day to decorate their tree and get candies and chocolates. This creates harmony and unity among family members. People exchange gifts and postcards. Everything is so bright that wherever you are, you can feel the Christmas spirit in the air. This year, for instance, concerts of kindergarten students playing Joseph and Mary’s lines of the birth of Christ, the Ethiopian musicians and the exhibits of the National Union of Eritrean Women on Harnet Avenue, around the Ministry of Education, have added color to the beautiful portrait of Asmara in December, especially around Christmas.

We celebrate two Christmases in Eritrea, one on December 25 and the other on January 8. With the New Year sandwiched among the two Christmas, it seems like the holidays were arranged on purpose so that people can have a light work load and abundant rest on the last month of the year for a good start on the New Year.

The Christmas celebrated on December 25 was not as popular as it is today. Even today, it is young people in the urban areas that celebrate it more. The elderly tend to be more attached to the Christmas celebrated on January 8.

As much as our personalities differ, we all have different ways of celebrating Christmas in Eritrea. In a normal case, people either go to church and attend the holy liturgy and special Christmas programs of their respective churches or go out with friends or families to recreational places such as fancy restaurants, clubs or simple piano bars and parties. The best part of the Eritrean Christmas is that people can go out partying on one Christmas eve and attend church services on the other. But not everyone thinks of this as an advantage.

I was once chatting with a foreign (Ethiopian) facebook friend online and we happened to talk about Christmas. He was very furious telling me that we Eritreans have lost most of our original taste of culture by abandoning the Geez calendar. The irony is that the addition of another Christmas does not signify the abandonment of the first. It is true that a society’s values and norms are passed on to the next generation by teaching it to the young people. The youth in Eritrea spend December 25 having fun on their own but they spend the Geez Christmas with their families doing all the things they are supposed to do during holidays, cleaning their houses prior to the big day and slaughtering a sheep, having coffee and wishing relatives a happy holiday. So, when people ask what happened to your culture, just tell them it has become more colorful now.

Try walking around Forto, along the way to the Ministry of Information, after sunset. On the pavement, just above the Nursing school dormitory, there is a place from which one can watch Asmara as if it has been painted on a wide canvas. Around this time of year, Asmara looks like a huge Christmas tree decorated by all the beautiful buildings, shops, hotels, trees and, of course its people. The young people are the big city’s most attractive decoration. Girls in dresses or tights and boys in suits or fashionable jeans, in groups and in pairs, walk on the streets with loud chattering and laughter. That is when I know it is Christmas, big smiles everywhere and our big Christmas tree shining brighter than ever before. That is when I know our culture is special and beautiful.

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