The mist that covered the city a few days ago was quite some scenery. This was not Florence, Paris, New York, Barcelona and nor was it London, Rome or Venice. This is Asmara. The city covered with fog early in the morning looks something out of a Hollywood movie set. Clean boulevards, pantile roofs, palm trees and cafes dotting the sidewalk. It is December and there is a rather festive feel to the cool breeze of air.
Asmara’s famous building — the Fiat Tagliero — built as a garage in 1938 by architect Guiseppe Pettazi once pumped petrol beneath two vast concrete wings. Legend has it that the architect put removable pillars under the wings during construction to hold them steady. Upon completion he then used a gun to force his workers to knock them away. The wings to this very day are still standing still on a building that looks like an airplane than a petrol station. Visit the Tagliero at six in the evening as it turns a golden color against the deep blue evening sky and, possibly for the only time in your life, a garage will leave you breathless.
Imagine the city during Christmas and New Year’s. Those cafes along the sidewalks of Harnet Avenue, decorated by Christmas lights and red decorations, yellow taxi’s, red buses whizzing back and forth dropping off and picking up passengers while the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary is playing Christmas carols over the speakers. Once again you find yourself asking whether you have seen this in a block buster Christmas Hollywood movie.
As in many parts of the world, Christmas and New Year are celebrated fervently here in Asmara. In the past, traditional Christmas was celebrated just like any other religious holiday in Eritrea. And if you now go to the villages on 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?”
“We slaughter a sheep or a goat, or a chicken.”
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.
“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….
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 an Eritrea version of pine trees near Beleza and AdiNifas. This was an answer to a long prayer and Christmas tree was here 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.
New Year is celebrated almost the same here too as in other parts of the world. The slight difference is that New Year’s resolutions are not that much known in our culture. The old usually wish for a prosperous, healthy and peaceful year. Few, however, try their best to make New Year resolutions.
Enter Tesfai, a pathological drinker. Tesfai went to the clinic for a blood test around December. The doctor simply told him that after meticulous search, he could, to his profound dismay, find some traces of blood in his almost shriveled veins.
Tesfai was told he was going to expire in two years’ time if he continued to drink in the same manner. That was when he decided to make a New Year’s resolution to stop drinking. Tesfai is now gainfully employed and living his best life.
Another part of the city, another wretched soul. This time it is Tekle, a human locomotive who always carried two patches of cigarettes in case he forgot one in the last bar he visited. Tekle experienced pain in the chest and had some problems breathing, so he went to the doctor’s for a lung x-ray.
“What’s up doc?” yelped Tekle. “Anything wrong with my dignified lungs?”
“This is a miracle!” exclaimed the doctor. “I must report this to the Nature Magazine?”
“What miracle?” asked Tekle perplexed.
“You must be an amphibian to have lungs of this shape and texture,” sighed the doctor and told Tekle the bad news.
Tekle smoked his last cigarette on New Year’s Eve and vowed to give up smoking as a New Year’s resolution.
“Gone are the days when a swashbuckling film featuring Errol Flyn sent us to seventh heaven,” my dad would add. Frankly speaking I have no idea who Errol Flyn is.
“Simon dear, will you be a good boy and slaughter the bleating sheep for our Christmas dinner?” suggests the mother, a shining knife in her hand.
“No way,” roars Simon who feels the job too demeaning for a youth like him who only yesterday took Danait, his date, to Asmara Palace.
Suppose Danait dropped by as he struggled with the sheep to slaughter it. It’s a nightmare. May be Danait would tell him that she would never see him again. No way is he taking that chance.