Ethiopian Christmas falls on 7th of January, the faithful attend all night church services, often moving from one church to another. The traditional game of Genna (a kind of hockey) and some times “gugs” (a kind of polo) are played along with horseracing. Priests don their regalia; Lalibela is considered the best place for Christmas.
The Ethiopian name given to Christmas is Ledet or Genna which, according to elders, comes from the word Gennana, meaning “imminent” to express the coming of the Lord and the freeing of mankind from sin. Genna is also the name given to a hockey-like ball game. Legend has it that when shepherds heard of the birth of Christ they rejoiced and started playing the game with their sticks. Men and boys in villages now play the traditional Genna game with great enthusiasm in the late afternoon of Christmas day, a spectacle much enjoyed by village communities and the elders who referee the game.
Genna festivities begin early in the day, as early as 6:00am when people gather in churches for mass. For the clergy it has begun much earlier, 43 days before, with the fasting period leading up to Genna. This pensive fasting period is required of the clergy and is known as the fast of the prophets. The fast of Advent is carried out to cleanse the body and soul in preparation for the day of the birth of Christ. Everyone stands throughout the worship service for up to three hours. The clergy and Debtera (scholars versed in the liturgy and music of the church) lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has been for over a 1,500 years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity. This ancient rite culminates in the spectacular procession of the Tabot (the Tabot is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant) and carried on top of a priest’s head). The procession makes its way three times around the church amidst ululation and chiming church bells, dazzling umbrellas and colorful attire of the clergy and Debteras (especially designated to accompany the Tabot) as well as a throng of Christians who follow the procession with lighted candles.