Christmas traditions: Food central to Ethiopian Christmas

Fanaye Mengesha is looking forward to wearing her Ethiopian shamma on Christmas. But she won’t be donning the traditional white dress and shawl, with elaborate embroidery along its fringes, on Dec. 25.

Ethiopia is Orthodox Christian and celebrates the birth of Christ on Jan. 7, according to the old Julian calendar. It’s a religious holiday without the commercial trappings of Santa Claus or colourfully wrapped gifts.

“It’s very pretty, it’s very festive,” says Mengesha, who immigrated to Canada more than 20 years ago and now lives in New Westminster.

After weeks of preparation that includes creating the sauces spiced with curries, masala and red chili peppers that are the staple of the Christmas Day feast, and acquiring new clothes for the children, the elders fast on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day starts early as families head to church, the women dressed in their shammas, the men wearing long shirts, riding-style pants that puff out at the thighs and white sandals. The men also carry a chira, a fly swatter made of the hair from a horse’s mane.

From church, families begin to make the rounds of elders’ homes for sumptuous spreads of homemade breads, chicken, beef and the spicy sauce and injera, a traditional flatbread. It’s all washed down with mead or a kind of homemade beer made of barley and hops.

It’s not the kind of day anyone wants to be on a diet.

“Wherever you go you have to eat something,” says Mengesha. “You more or less eat and drink all day. It’s actually a show of respect to the elders.”

In rural areas, the men will work off some of their feasting with a rousing match of ganna, which resembles field hockey and is played with bent sticks and small wooden ball.

As Mengesha settled into her new life in Canada, and her kids grew older, her Christmas traditions Westernized. She erects a tree and her family exchanges gifts. But on Orthodox Christmas, much of the Ethiopian community in Metro Vancouver will put on their special garments and attend luncheons.

“It reminds us of home,” says Mengesha. “We don’t get to wear it here much.”


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